Speaking to a room full of religion reporters last month in Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput rejected the notion that US bishops, perceived to be more concerned with abortion than with social justice, were somehow at odds with Pope Francis, who’s tended to stress the latter during his two and a half years as pope.
Chaput, considered a leader of the conservative bloc of US bishops, pointed out that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which will host Pope Francis later this month during the World Meeting of Families, spends far more on poverty and other social justice issues than it does fighting abortion and contraception; 20 times more, in fact.
The subtext of Chaput’s remarks was in line with much of the conversation in Philadelphia during the Religion Newswriters Association conference: While we love the Holy Father, there’s nothing new going on here.
This is the debate raging in some Catholic circles as Francis prepares for his first-ever visit to the United States later this month, a trip that includes an address to the US Congress, a speech to the United Nations, and less splashy, but perhaps more moving, moments, such as a visit to a Philly prison and lunch with homeless folks at a DC Catholic Charities agency.
On one side of this debate are fans of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who see in Francis not a radical intent on remaking the Church, but a charismatic leader standing on the shoulders of giants, simply building on their legacies.
The other side is comprised largely of center-left Catholics, or former Catholics, who have felt lost in the wilderness for the past few decades, as a more conservative Church took hold under John Paul II, and who see in Francis a figure who will steer institutional Catholicism back to the ideological center.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
Although Francis hasn’t — and probably won’t — change much Church teaching, he is a revolutionary figure nonetheless because he’s a master when it comes to communicating in ways that make people listen.
Upon his election in March 2013, Francis inherited Pope Benedict XVI’s Twitter account, along with the now-retired pope’s 3 million followers. During his first week as pope, Francis published a tweet that has become the blueprint for his entire papacy:
Let us keep a place for Christ in our lives, let us care for one another and let us be loving custodians of creation.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) March 19, 2013
This kind of sharp, to-the-point message has catapulted Francis into Twitter superstardom. He’s amassed more than 23 million followers and has been dubbed the most influential global leader on the social network three years running.
But it’s not just on social media where Francis has mastered the power of his unique bully pulpit.
Consider last week’s “virtual audience,” broadcast on ABC’s 20/20, during which Francis spoke via satellite to Catholics in three US regions he’s not visiting during his upcoming tour: Chicago, Los Angeles, and a border town in Texas.
During one segment, a single mother of two broke down in tears while describing how difficult her daughters have had it, telling Francis she hadn’t always made right choices.
The pope listened intently, and he offered not judgment, but compassion and mercy. He praised the single mom for doing the best she could with her two daughters. And, at the same time, he also reiterated the Church’s teaching against abortion, stating pretty matter-of-factly that the mother could have chosen to terminate the pregnancies. But she didn’t, and Pope Francis called her “a brave woman because you were able to bring two daughters into the world.”
The Twitterverse, as well as headlines the next day, focused on Francis’ compassion and mercy, not just for the single mom, but for all the participants with whom he interacted. The perception of the Catholic Church, not exactly glowing in recent years, is changing because of this pope, a pastor at heart, and how he communicates with his flock.
Like his tweeting, Friday night’s television special is another example of Francis’ power to communicate ancient truths via new technology. As Greg Kandra, a deacon who writes about Catholicism in popular media, put it, “we haven’t seen anything like this before.”
At other times, Francis communicates important messages without ever saying a word. For example, last week Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, announced that the papal Mass canonizing Junipero Serra would be celebrated primarily in Spanish.
This is the pope’s first language, of course, and he’s not comfortable using English, so this makes sense.
But there’s another message, too: The Northeast and Midwest centers of US Catholicism have gravitated to the Southwest, and the US Church is well on its way to becoming a Hispanic Church.
The pope’s message, brilliantly communicated well before he’s reached US soil, isn’t sitting well with everyone.
Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, for example, went on a tirade Friday, calling the pope’s decision to speak Spanish “provocative,” and sarcastically asked if Francis would address Congress in Spanish, too, “in recognition of all the Spanish-speaking members of Congress there are?” (He won’t; his remarks will be delivered in English.)
Finally, the trip itself is a master lesson in communications.
Francis will stop off in Cuba before he reaches the United States, and spend a few days with Catholics there. He might even gain a convert if Raul Castro is a man of his word. From there, he’ll take a short flight to Washington, where President Barack Obama and other US dignitaries will greet him.
The message is clear: These two nations are neighbors, closely linked by geography and culture, and Pope Francis wants peace. He was instrumental behind the scenes last year in helping US and Cuban diplomats end decades of hostilities, and these images of a joint US-Cuba visit will only add to the pope’s diplomatic legacy.
That Francis is communicating dusty teachings in refreshingly modern ways, and that he’s proven himself quite adept at capturing hearts and minds, doesn’t challenge or diminish his predecessors. In fact, who can doubt that Benedict, John Paul, and others would all be anything but delighted at the respect afforded their successor?
Here’s the crux of it: None of the pope’s tweets, TV specials, or symbolic gestures are about him at all. In fact, they all point back to something much bigger: If you love Pope Francis, wait until you hear about Jesus.
Is this wholly and completely new? Maybe not. But there’s certainly something novel in a pope so effectively getting the world to pay attention.
Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin is the author of a new book, “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters,” that examines the mission of Pope Francis through his extensive use of social media. Read an excerpt here.