Thursday, 6 March 2014

What has made Pope Francis a media superstar?

The new Pope, Francis I, must be a PR executive’s idea of a dream.
Since becoming Pope in March, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has dominated the world media. He was named person of the year by both Time magazine and the US gay magazine Advocate. Most recently he appeared on the front cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
The beaming Pope has received the sort of coverage previously reserved for rock and sports stars.
Pope Francis’s achievement is all the more impressive when it is put into the context of where the Papacy stood under his predecessor Benedict XVI.
At that time, its reputation stood at something of an all time low, racked by corruption in Vatican ranks, the ongoing child abuse scandals and the impression of an institution that was a couple of centuries out of date with its attitudes on gender and equality.
Doctrinally there is very little difference between Pope Francis and his predecessor but PR wise the two men are polls apart.
Pope Francis always appears relaxed before the world’s media, even enjoying the opportunity of talking to reporters.
A Jesuit, he has brought his humble way of living to Rome. He lives in a simple apartment outside of the Vatican offices and drives a second hand car.
His rhetoric has also repeatedly addressed the needs of the poor, something that has a greater resonance if living a humble existence oneself.
The new Pope has moved to make change, appointing a permanent council of eight cardinals from around the world to oversee reform of the Vatican.
The Pope has also set up a child sex abuse committee to look at abuse in the Church.
However, it has been more his words than his deeds thus far that seem to have captured the world’s media. He has repeatedly condemned the present form of capitalism, calling on the Church to walk with the poor. This has brought forth, accusations that he is a Marxist, causing some powerful business leaders to pull back from previous financial support they would have given the Church.
The new Pope’s tone of tolerance, extended to liberation theologians, whose take on the Church of the poor Francis has largely adopted. Previous Pope’s such as John Paul II persecuted the liberation theologians, moving to silence and even excommunicate some.
Tolerance has also been evident in the new Pope’s language concerning gay people. In place of Pope John Paul II's claim that: homosexuality was “intrinsically evil” comes: “if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.”
What has been amazing is the way Francis has been welcomed across the board from right to left. So in Britain, few would be surprised at the coverage given to the activities of the Pope by the likes of the Times and Telegraph. Both papers have kept up specialist correspondents working on religious issues, with faith (mainly Christian) writ large on their pages.
More surprising is the favourable coverage that Francis has received from liberal titles like the Guardian and Independent. Both papers tend to be at best sceptical about Catholicism and at times downright hostile.
So it comes as a surprise when Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland declares that in place of Barack Obama, “the obvious new hero of the left is the Pope.”
Then there was a Christmas editorial from the Independent: “Francis has refused to tone down his sharp criticism of the distorting effects of modern capitalism, and has championed the cause of the poor in a manner that other international leaders could and should learn from.”
The great media appeal of the Pope means at present that virtually anything he does makes news. Take a recent week, when the Pope made headlines like “Pope Francis peace doves attacked by crow and seagull” ,“Pope Francis tells Francois Hollande: ‘we share a saint’” and “Pope Francis ‘is great’ claim jailed mafia bosses.”
This newsworthiness gives the Pope a free rein to speak about a whole range of subjects. In the past, it has been the cry of liberals in the Church that all the hierarchy wanted to talk about was abortion, contraception and gays. And that was all the media wanted to report concerning the Church. When Pope’s or bishops said something about say war in Syria or the economic crisis, no one was interested. Now if Francis says it, at least for the moment, everyone is interested.
There does though appear to be a struggle between right and left to claim ownership of this Pope. The left look to his various pronouncements, based on the social teachings of the Church, on capitalism, the poor, refugees, war and peace.
The view of the right was best summarised by Catholic Herald editor Luke Coppen who argues that this Pope is a conservative figure who has not moved from the strict doctrine of the Church but there are those on the left taking elements of what he says out of context to suit their own agenda. On the gay issue, for example, Coppen puts Francis’s comments in the context of Article 2358 of the Church’s catechism, calling for gay people to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’. “In simply restating Catholic teaching, however, Francis was hailed as a hero,” said Coppen who refers to the liberal view of the new Pope as “fantasy Francis.“
“Whenever he proves himself loyal to Catholic teaching — denouncing abortion, for instance, or saying that same-sex marriage is an ‘anthropological regression’ — his liberal fan base turns a deaf ear.”
Joe Kelly, the editor of the Catholic weekly the Universe, also takes issue with some Papal perceptions. “Francis isn't coming to advocate any pseudo-marxist revolution - this guy's definitely not an Oscar Romero (the former Archbishop of El Salvador, who was killed in 1980 for his advocacy on behalf of the poor), whatever some might like to think. Yes, he's for a focus on the poor and marginalised, but he wants us to embrace and to feed them, not go off and lobby parliament on their behalf,” said Kelly.
Editor of the online news service Independent Catholic News, Jo Siedlecka thinks he is “a natural communicator in touch with contemporary thinking and able to explain Christianity in an attractive way.
“He is warm. He smiles and makes jokes, that's why he is getting so much media coverage. He has star quality. This may be a honeymoon period but I think the media will continue to cover Pope Francis as long as he keeps coming out with such great quotes. I wish we had more religious leaders like him.” 
What cannot be doubted is that Pope Francis is good business, he sells papers. He is saying things that find an audience internationally, a moral voice, not afraid to speak out. People want to hear what he has to say. A real test will come though, when another scandal hits ..and how he handles it.
The test for many as to whether this Pope is merely a good orator or a true reformer will be whether he attains structural change in the Church. Will he address the issues of an out of date institution that still treats women as second class citizens and gays as outcasts? If he does then there can be said to be real change.
It will ofcourse be unpopular with a large number of vested interests who have done very nicely thank you out of the previous way of running things. It will be interesting to see then how the media persona of the Pope progresses, when there will be plenty from the vested interests prepared to brief against. What does seem certain is that he won’t be able to go on pleasing all the people all of the time, which has been the story of his Papacy so far.

* Published - British Journalism Review - March 2014

1 comment:

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