September 21, 2014
A long Vatican honeymoon
By Marcelo J. García
How costly can honeymoon at the Vatican be? Pope Francis, Buenos Aires’ Jorge Bergoglio, is turning one in his job this week and enjoys popularity ratings and media praise world leaders with smaller followings and bigger territories to oversee would surely envy.
The Vatican is not any given Nation-State. The pope has more symbolic than concrete statesman’s responsibilities and most of his governing is done through words rather than law. And still, the surprise hope he triggered when he emerged as Benedict’s successor and the wave of adoration that followed can at one point play against this man who now says he abhors the personality cult brewing around him.
A personality cult he helped to forge.
The pope is broadly credited for having improved the Vatican’s reach to the masses, both Catholics and non-Catholics. Any Church leader has over 2000 years of faith marketing to build from. Starting from his talking points from the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica on the day of his ascension, the pope has largely portrayed a narrative of the outsider who wishes to take the Church away from palace intrigues so characteristic of the Roman Curia: “I come from the end of the world”, “I am the bishop of Rome” and “Pray for me”. His every story strand picked up from there through his first year, including a much debated “who am I to judge” line on a gay priest.
Now the pope seems willing to tone down the frenzy surrounding him, which included some iconic moments such as being named the person of the year by Time magazine and being featured on the covers of liberal flagships of the Western world like Rolling Stone magazine and the New Yorker. “I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’,” he said in an interview published this week by Corriere della Sera. “Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the pope as a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone — a normal person.”
He is no normal person and he knows it. In any case, he uses the normal person approach to his papacy as the perfect tactic to garner the outside support he needs to carry out reforms inside a Church he needs to keep afloat. And yet, the question that remains unanswered is how much he wishes to push for a change agenda that his new Superpope image would demand from him.
With the latest news being that Francis is on a list for potential winners of the Nobel Peace Prize this year, the resemblances between his first year in the Catholic throne and the ‘Yes, We Can‘ stage of Barack Obama’s presidency are increasingly noticeable. Pope Francis 2014 is Barack Obama 2009. The acid test for a leadership built overnight through political gesturing, speeches and projected proximity with the constituency is to deliver results, something that Obama mostly failed to do during his first six years in office — both at home and abroad. Overshooting expectations could be the pope’s Achilles’ heels too.
The pope is likely to have realized that, after collecting support, he now needs to either produce concrete change or lower the expectations about the change the Catholics “can believe in.” As any leader exposed to Argentina’s Peronism during most of his public life, the ultimate question for the pope is what he plans to do with the power and reputation he has accumulated so far.
A Pew poll conducted in the US (http://www.pewforum.org/2014/03/06/catholics-view-pope-francis-as-a-change-for-the-better/ ) shows an impressive level of support for Francis but it also indicates that the people would like to see the hope turned into change, if not immediately at least through time, even in thorny issues like same-sex marriage, priests getting married and women becoming priests. The number of Catholics viewing the pope as a change for the better is as high as 71 percent, rivalling John Paul II’s popularity at the peak of the Polish pontiff’s struggle to bring down Communism.
“He is the poor man’s pope,” says Magel, a 67-year-old school
nurse cited in the survey (http://www.pewforum.org/2014/03/06/how-catholics-view-pope-francis-in-their-own-words/ ). “He does his own thing. He’s a more normal, down-to-Earth person, and he seems connected with the people. We talk about Pope Francis just about every time we have dinner.” Magel adds she and her husband marvel at the daily news coming from the Vatican, such as the pope’s decision to renew his Argentine passport in February, just as any ordinary citizen would have done.
The pope emerged in a world in desperate need for global leaders. The Western mainstream media adopted him as its own darling. Ruling by gestures is effective to win love at first sight especially in a highly symbolical institution like the Church. But there comes a time when the street credibility approach might boomerang. During last Sunday’s Angelus message, a slip of his Italian got him to say the swear word cazzo instead of caso (case). Translations aside, that is a word that could have made Magel and her family choke over her dinner meal.