Press review: The first year of Pope Francis’ pontificate
On March 11, 2014, three French journalists—Frédéric Mounier of La Croix, Jean-Louis de la Vassière of Agence France Presse and Nicolas Diat, author of L’homme qui ne voulait pas être pape [The man who did not want to be pope, meaning Benedict XVI – Editor’s note] published by Albin Michel—analyzed the first year of the pontificate of Pope Francis, during a conference organized by the Saint Louis Center of the Institut français in Rome.
According to Frédéric Mounier: “The Church’s credibility has been restored” with the new pope. “The expressions that we find in everything he says and writes, the words that we know by heart—tenderness, mercy, forgiveness, open arms, healing wounds, going out, the peripheries—have brought about a sea change,” comments the journalist whose book Le printemps du Vatican [Vatican springtime] was published by Bayard. He went on to advise caution, recalling how often the “media market” can “at first drool over and adore a media icon, and then ignore him, forget him, and finally gore him.”
According to Jean-Louis de La Vaissière, the “real revolution” of the new pope, in particular with regard to the clergy, is first and foremost “a revolution in attitudes”: “Pope Francis’ strength is a sort of direct line to the people, a sort of direct democracy.”
A growing personalization of papal authority
On March 13, the anniversary of the election, Le Figaro dedicated several articles to the Supreme Pontiff. Under the headline “Pope Francis / Benedict XVI: rupture or continuity?”, the journalist and essayist Philippe Maxence recommends “approaching the pontificate of Pope Francis within the larger context of the Church’s digestion problems with regard to the modern world.” He notes that since “the creation of the Vatican City State, which was born of the Lateran Accords (February 11, 1929),” “in order to exist, the papacy is making a transition which, schematically speaking, consists partly of a reinforcement of its spiritual role and partly of a growing personalization of papal authority.”
“In his own way, John Paul II tended toward a personalization of the papal office.... He used it basically to put the Church back at the center of current events, in other words, at the very center of the world. From 1978 to 2005 he thus embodied in an extraordinary way this papacy, more than ever giving it a face and a name, but, as some critics often said, at the risk of people coming to hear the singer without remembering the song. The enthusiasm aroused by the person of John Paul II is all the more remarkable, given that his moral message was not put into practice universally by those who came to listen to him.,
“Far from bringing about a rupture with his personalization of the papal office, Francis has given it new vigor, with a genius for communication that is based on startling expressions that speak to everyone’s heart. In this way the pope can be heard. Do they really listen to him, beyond the initial emotion aroused by his words? That is another question, and it is too early to evaluate the impact of his speeches. On the other hand, unlike Pius XII, and in a certain way unlike John Paul II, the focus on the very person of the pope is not noticeably aimed at facilitating the transmission of Church doctrine; rather it is meant to cover a collegial broadening of the exercise of authority within the Church. Are we thus arriving at the ultimate paradox in the evolution of the papacy in the modern world: relying more and more on a man’s charisms in order to dilute his personal authority in a form of collegiality that is more in tune with the democratic age in which we live?
“The question is all the more appropriate, given that Francis sees his role more as that of a parish priest... than as the responsibility to proclaim doctrine, in season and out of season, or to govern the Church in the fullness of the sovereignty attached to his ministry.
“Are we therefore at the end of a process that is nicely illustrated by the use, imposed from on high, of the simple name of Francis, the name of a person rather than the symbol of an office? Not long ago it was said of Pius XII that he had let his personality disappear into his ministry, and in so doing was faithful to the classical concept of authority. But hasn’t the opposite happened as well? Can we say that, for his part, Francis absorbs the ministry into his person? To tell the truth, it is too early to answer with any certainty. Still, there is nothing to keep us from changing our paradigm in evaluating the present pontificate, instead of sticking with the everlasting template of a rupture with the preceding pontiff.”
In the same March 13 issue of Le Figaro, Jean-Marie Guénois and Liliane Miljkovic ask themselves “what Pope Francis has succeeded in doing and what he still has to prove,” only to answer that basically, “everything remains to be done.”
“Concerning financial reform, the creation of a very international council made up of prelates and lay professionals is a very strong indication of a trend toward more rational, transparent methods, but everything remains to be done. Starting with deciding the fate of the existing structures that perform this function and are destined to disappear. There is also the risk of complicating the functioning of a Roman Curia (which is already ponderous): now there will be two heads directing it, because these new councils compete with the old Secretariat of State. The latter, indeed, always had the responsibility of advising the pope in his government. Moreover it has all the means of doing so, including economic ones, since it heads the Prefecture for Economic Affairs that was created in 1967.
“For the moment, therefore, everything is happening as though the President of the French Republic were short-circuiting the Prime Minister.... Such a situation can be envisaged on the tactical level in order to stimulate, or compel, reform, but it cannot last, especially in such a stable institution as the Catholic Church. In any case, no one today sees clearly where the reform has made any gains in effectiveness and how the pope will get out of this system of twofold command.”
What is going badly with the new pope
In his analysis, Jean-Marie Guenois does not hesitate to contemplate “what is going badly with Pope Francis”: “... the fact that he is deliberately going around the Secretariat of State in order to govern is making some staunch enemies for him in the Vatican and in the Church. Many feel that they are not really getting any consideration whereas they have done the Holy See no disservice. Although everyone praises his charism and his spiritual leadership, some regret his authoritarianism, even though Francis is exhibiting a participatory style of governance. In Latin America, for example, he is bringing about a thorough renewal of the episcopate, while rarely taking into account the advice of the Vatican services.
“One year after his election, therefore, the grace period still in effect outside the Church is experienced much less in the little world of the Vatican, and in some Church circles where a certain perplexity is increasing, even though it is not good form to utter any criticism in that culture. But the repeated judgments against the high-ranking faithful or against priests who are a bit too classical could end up being counterproductive and discourage this part of the public, which feels that it is being unfairly caricatured by the pope himself. The pope’s acerbic critiques do indeed wake up a slumbering Catholic majority, but they can sometimes create artificial divisions within communities between the “true” Christians and the others. If it’s not that, then it’s the lay people who turn to the priests who are totally dedicated to their mission, in order to teach them a lesson now!”
In conclusion, the Vaticanist of Le Figaro mentions “three particularly sensitive issues”: “The first issue has to do with the ‘pastoral sensitivity’ (of the pope), as they say euphemistically in the Church to avoid speaking about ‘political sensitivity’. North American Catholics in particular, already exasperated by the distance that Francis has placed between himself and the primacy of questions of sexual morality, think that his critique of capitalism is not only outdated but also too restricted to its Latin American origin and that it no longer corresponds to present-day reality. This misunderstanding, nevertheless, obliged Pope Francis, in an interview granted to La Stampa, to reassure those Catholics by declaring that he was ‘not a Marxist’ although he could not conceal a left-leaning social sensibility—about which there is no doubt one year into his pontificate. This bothers Catholics on the right, who are a majority, even though his traditional, radically Christ-centered spirituality bothers just as much the Catholics on the left, who are in the minority!
“The second sensitive issue is the liturgy.... Many regret that they perceive something like a marked disinterest in liturgical questions. These seem in fact to be the least of his worries, whereas Benedict XVI was religiously meticulous on the subject. The German pope thought that the way of celebrating Mass was a typical expression of the Church’s faith in the service of the sacred and of the Catholic mystery of the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ in the Eucharistic host, a point especially disputed by Protestants. Along the same lines, some are uneasy because Francis is distancing himself from the imperial status of the papacy, which could lead to a ‘desacralization’ of the papal office.
“The last issue, which could really ignite the powder keg and create an intense division if Francis were to put into practice what he set down in black and white last November in his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel: decentralizing part of the Roman doctrinal authority and delegating it to the bishops’ conferences. They could then adapt certain points of doctrine to the local cultural context. This is an old project of the Second Vatican Council, which until now has been contained. Because what is at stake is the unity and the strength of the whole Catholic Church which, unlike all other religions, has succeeded in living with the astonishing paradox of strong doctrinal unity in the midst of a vast cultural and geographical diversity.”
Along completely different lines, that are nevertheless very revealing, we should note that the first anniversary of Francis’ pontificate was the occasion for the Italian publishing house Mondadori to launch a new magazine entirely devoted to the pope: the weekly Il Mio Papa (My Pope), three million copies of which were printed during the first month of its existence, according to Catholic News Agency (CNA). According to its editors, this magazine will have a popular, positive and colorful approach.... It will be easy to read, will print a large number of vivid photographs and will offer a whole set of articles meant to highlight the message of the Bishop of Rome.
“The idea of producing a magazine to report the acts and gestures of Pope Francis resulted from the observation that his election stimulated a renewed interest in questions of ethics, morality and religion,” said Aldo Vitali, who is in charge of the magazine. “The fact is that the new pope, thanks to his sense of empathy and to the force and simplicity of his message, has won the hearts of everyone, including non-believers,” he added.
The first issue of Il Mio Papa appeared at the news stands on March 5, and on that same day Pope Francis granted a long interview to the editor of Corriere della Sera, Ferruccio de Bortoli, who asked him, among other things, questions about “francescomania”. The Supreme Pontiff answered that he did not like ideological interpretations, nor the “mythology” that has been created around him. “Presenting the pope as a kind of superman, a sort of star, seems offensive to me,” he declared, assuring the interviewer that he was a normal person, a man who laughs, weeps, sleeps soundly and has friends, like everybody else.
On March 20 the American business magazine Fortune named Pope Francis the “world’s greatest leader” according to a classification in which he outranked the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the former American President Bill Clinton, the Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama and even the director of the online sales website Amazon, Jeff Bezos. In order to determine this ranking, the Fortune jury selected men and women who “lead people in the way that they want to be led” in the areas of business, politics, the military, philanthropy and religion. According to Fortune, the Supreme Pontiff “electrified the Church,” say the editors of Fortune, “and attracted legions of non-Catholic admirers by his energetic change of direction.”
This whole orgy of publicity surrounding the pope drove the journalist Paulin Césari to wonder in the March 13 issue of Le Figaro: “Has Pope Francis become a marketing product?” In his view, “the media creation of an ultra-worldly pope is nothing but product marketing created by the entertainment industry, showcasing its desires so that they might become a reality: a conventional, agreeable avatar that can sell things and be sold, a virtual creature that conforms to the times, which is supposed to replace the real pope in everyone’s mind. We learn that the Mondadori group (the property of Berlusconi and the owner of Closer, the leading women’s magazine in France) is launching a magazine dedicated to the Pontiff. It is designed for fans and groupies. Each issue will contain a poster of His Holiness. There will be no talk about religion in it. And if you think you are dreaming, you are very wrong, because that is how the system works: it transforms every critique of show business into show business about the critique, then standardizes the latter, transforming it into a piece of merchandise like any other and thus depriving it of any validity and ultimately annihilating it.”
(Sources: Apic/Imedia/Figaro – DICI no. 293 dated March 28, 2014)
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