Figuring out Francis

By Nicole Williams

A man wakes up in the morning, goes to the front desk to pay his hotel bill and walks the streets carrying a brief case. His dress is simple and understated. As he walks, a crowd of photographers surrounds him. He smiles patiently, waves, and keeps walking. The following day, he makes headlines in the world’s leading media outlets.

Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, has managed to bring the Catholic faith back into the media spotlight since his election to the papacy in 2013. Through a series of gestures and statements, Pope Francis has wooed media, both Catholic and secular, gracing the covers of Rolling StoneTime as person of the year, and Esquire as best-dressed.

Pope Francis’ title as best-dressed man of 2013 is obviously debatable, but it does beg the question: Does Pope Francis really deserve the media attention he’s been getting, or is this new image of the papacy a media construct?

For Father Thomas Rosica, CEO of Salt + Light Television, a Toronto-based Catholic media company, the world’s fascination with Pope Francis has much to do with the simplicity of his actions. “When people see the Pope do something normal, they see something extraordinary,” he says. Salt + Light has always followed the Pope closely, but even they felt something was different when Pope Francis was elected to the papal office. Sebastian Gomes, a producer at Salt+ Light, recently released The Francis Effect, a documentary chronicling the unusual papacy of Pope Francis, and the world’s fascination with him.

The important question people seem to be asking is does Pope Francis represent a change in style or substance? – Sebastian Gomes

“For us, in a sense, we don’t care who the Pope is, but it wasn’t long into Pope Francis’ pontificate that we knew this one would be different,” says Gomes. “From the very beginning he was himself. So humble and genuine.”

After his election, Pope Francis chose to forsake the traditional papal dress when acknowledging the crowd for the first time. Leaving behind the Vatican’s traditional veil of pageantry is one of the reasons Pope Francis’ humility is noteworthy says Gomes.

But even before Francis’ humility was showcased on the world stage, his election to the papal office was very out of the ordinary. “There’s a great interest in Francis not being European,” says Bart Testa, a film and television professor, who also teaches courses in religion, at the University of Toronto. “He’s receiving extra media attention in part because of his contrast to his predecessors.”

Indeed, Francis is the first Jesuit, the first pope from the Americas and consequently the first non-European pope in over a thousand years. “Pope Francis is coming outside of the normal Vatican game, which for the media is very noteworthy,” says Testa.

FrancisPhoto by Mazur/

But beyond his origins, Pope Francis’ demeanor seems to greatly differ from the formality expected from the Catholic Church. Marlena Loughheed works in the office of communications at the Arch-Diocese of Toronto. “We’re used to everything being very measured,” says Loughheed. “Pope Francis speaks off the cuff and has made himself so accessible. That’s why the media likes him.”

“A lot of it has to do with the tone he uses,” says Loughheed. Pope Francis exemplifies a clear shift in tone, emphasizing his casual disposition. “He uses a very pastoral tone, a very laid-backway of speaking. During an interview Pope Francis used the term ‘gay’ which is not usually used by the church,” says Loughheed. Normally homosexuality is referred to as “same sex attraction” within the Catholic Church as to avoid using labels.

The Vatican’s policy regarding same-sex marriage has been an increasing point of contention between Catholicism and the secular world. Pope Francis has been gathering favourable attention after being quoted as saying “who am I to judge?” in reference to gay members of the church. “He refuses to bring down any thunder and lightning. It’s a major weather change,” says Testa. “His approach is to be much more forgiving and relaxed.”

Pope Francis has taken this attitude towards other controversial topics like divorce, contraception and the role of women in the church.

“The important question people seem to be asking is does Pope Francis represent a change in style or substance,” says Gomes. “Are there fundamental things about the Catholic church he’s going to change or is this just the way he carries himself?”

There are changes that seems to be so desperately wanted by the secular community that the media has a history of misattributing quotes to Pope Francis, even in his short time in the papal office.

“Around every important person is a whole universe of gossip and misinterpretations of statements, but when you isolate where [Francis] has been misquoted, it’s always a topic that most interests the media. They’re always ready to jump on any casual remark,” says Testa. After a lengthy press conference on the flight home from Brazil following World Youth Day, the major focus of attention was on one of Pope Francis’ final answers regarding gay lobbies within the church. “Who am I to judge?” made headlines across the world. “Media outlets are always looking for soundbites,” says Fr. Rosica. “It’s part of their job.”

During this time, attitude counts for more than action – Bart Testa

But it seems the media agenda goes beyond finding interesting soundbites. “When you isolate where Pope Francis has been quoted, it’s always a topic that interests the media the most,” says Testa, “but what constitutes as interesting change for the secular media and the church as an operation are not always the same.” The secular media highlights what its readers want the most: a Pope that’s going to bring real change to the topics that concern them the most.

“The media seems to be latching onto his words because from their perception, it seems as though things are changing,” says Loughheed, who comes from the Communications office at the Arch-Diocese of Toronto. “What they don’t realize is that it’s just the tone that’s changing.”

That’s not to say Pope Francis hasn’t brought about significant reform within the Catholic Church: just not the kind of reforms the secular community seems so eager to see. “One of the big changes we are seeing is the change in the Vatican bureaucracy; how the Vatican actually functions as an institution,” says Gomes. Pope Francis has been very public in his criticisms about the Church’s financial dealings, recently appointing Cardinal George Pell to oversee Vatican finances. Pell is known for his public criticism over financial mishandling within the Vatican. Further reforms include a new 15-member council including both cardinals and lay people with equal voting rights, an unprecedented measure within the Vatican. “It’s a substantial change because [the church] has been operating the same way for hundreds of years,” says Gomes. Ultimately, he says, Pope Francis is trying to make the church a global institution that works properly.

It’s a change people are taking as a sign of further reforms to come, but many might be disappointed by the outcome. “None of the fundamental teachings can change,” says Loughheed. So when Pope Francis speaks of gay members in the Catholic Church in the tone that he does, it does not mean he is condoning same-sex marriage or homosexuality.

The main difference with Pope Francis seems to be his willingness to forgive and include more people in the Catholic Church, a change made more significant in comparison to his recent predecessors. “Pope John Paul II was also a popular media figure, but still a very conservative Pope,” says Testa. “Then you get Benedict who was highly conservative, very intellectual, but without charm. He was perceived as a kind of Vatican hit-man.” Many argue the harsh image attributed to Pope Benedict is unjustified. “Pope Benedict was a highly misunderstood individual. He came into office with great disadvantages: officials who were unhelpful,” says Fr. Rosica.

BenedictPhoto of Pope Benedict by Mazur/

While Francis seems to have avoided the type of criticisms that surrounded Pope Benedict, Gomes says, “You always have to be weary of the person who sees an absolute break in continuity between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. It’s just absolutely not true,” says Gomes. And while that may not be surprising for some, many don’t realize that Pope Francis comes from the same institution. In 2010, Pope Francis lobbied against an Argentinian bill for same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.

Yet it seems that Pope Francis’ difference in tone from Pope Benedict is enough to shift the media’s attention from negative exposure. “He’s saying the exact same thing, just using different terms and a different tone,” says Loughheed. For many media outlets, the shift in tone still represents a hope for change. At the moment, many say the world is experiencing its honey moon period with Pope Francis. “During this time, attitude counts for more than action,” says Testa.

It may be an impossibility for the Catholic world to change certain fundamental teachings, but Pope Francis has still managed to change the church in the ways he can for the better. “When everyone had him on this pedestal, that historically the church had built it up to be, [Francis] has managed to humanize the office of the Pope,” Gomes explains. In a recent interview for Mexican broadcaster Televisa, Pope Francis said he expects to retire after four to five years, so how much more change is coming from him is a mystery. For now, the world waits with bated breath to see what Pope Francis’ next move will be. “There’s still a potential set of moves and positions he could take that wouldn’t affect morals or doctrines in the church,” says Testa, “The door has only just opened.”


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