I love me some Pope Francis.
How do you not like this guy? Even if you’re not a Catholic, it’s nearly impossible not to take notice of the Holy Father and appreciate his approach to the gig.
He’s only been Pope for about one year, but he’s garnered more media attention than any other Pope in my lifetime.
Pope John Paul II was a close second. He was beloved and will be canonized on Sunday along with Pope John XXIII, the pontiff when Vatican II started in the early 1960s.
I’ll never forget the millions of people who turned out for John Paul II when he visited Chicago in 1979. An estimated 200,000 people gathered in Grant Park for the Papal Mass, and he addressed thousands from the roof of Quigley South Seminary (now St. Rita High School). It was an exciting time and a moment of pride for the city’s Polish population. John Paul II was the second Pope to visit the United States and first to come to Chicago.
But Pope Francis has redefined the role primarily by doing away with all the pomp that accompanies being the head of the Catholic Church.
The other day in St. Peter’s Square, he let two young boys board the Popemobile for a ride through St. Peter’s Square. A few months ago, the Pope was addressing a large group of families when a young boy walked onto the stage and stood at his side. No one ushered the little one away. Instead, the Pope patted the boy on the head and continued his address as the boy hugged him and spent some time sitting in his chair. It was a precious moment.
The Pope rolls in a Renault with 190,000 miles on it and lives in a small apartment in Casa Marta, a sort of guest hostel in the Vatican, rather than in the Papal Apartments of the Apostolic Palace. He’s modest in every way and people relate to that. He mingles with massive crowds in St. Peter’s Square and routinely exits his vehicle to bless the followers and kiss babies.
Those who aren’t so modest have heard the Pope’s message loud and clear. He suspended a German bishop accused of spending millions on lavish renovations to his residence. It’s the absolute wrong time for a member of the church’s hierarchy to go on spending spree. Humility is in. Extravagance is out. Pope Francis has made that clear.
Even the little things the pope has done have signaled his desire to be the everyman’s pontiff.
He kept his black shoes rather than wearing the red ones customary for the Pope. He also is foregoing the red cape popes usually wear. He continues to wear the iron-plated pectoral cross he used as archbishop, and his papal fisherman’s ring isn’t gold but gold-plated silver.
He uses Twitter and has taken “selfies.” He’s not only modest; he’s hip.
He’s also a tad self-deprecating as evidenced when he donned a red clown nose after congratulating newlyweds in St. Peter’s Square who work as volunteers for an organization that assist the sick with clown therapy.
The beauty of Francis is that we have no idea what he’ll do next and all his actions are impromptu. Nothing is staged. He’s the genuine article and he’s arrived at the right time.
A couple years ago, a Catholic lay organization ran a series of TV commercials designed to convince fallen-away Catholics to return to the Church. The commercials were effective and likely convinced some people to return to the church.
But no commercial will hold a candle to the actions of Pope Francis. He’s approach to the papacy appeals to people. Catholics my age probably recall a very different papacy. I remember Pope Paul throughout my elementary school years, and Pope Benedict led the church for eight years before stepping down last year.
Neither of them seemed to connect with the people. They were distant figures who were revered, adored, exalted. They seemed more like symbols of the church than people. Francis has redefined the role. He stands among us rather than apart from us.
Young people are the future of the church and having a pope that connects with youth is vital for the church’s future. Francis understands this.
I doubt they use the public relations/marketing term “rebranding” in Vatican City, but that’s what Francis appears to be doing and it’s working. He always looks happy. It’s as though the guy no one expected to become pope is as comfortable in the job as he is in his black shoes and old Renault.