The Catholic Thing
Francis: The Man and the Message Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 06 November 2013

I really like Pope Francis. But I’m biased. I like him not primarily because he strikes me as so “different” or “humble” or for the other things the press says about him. No, I like him because he strikes me as a bit goofy. He talks to people he’s not expected to talk to and says things people don’t expect, not always the things he’s “supposed to.” His desire to reach people explodes out of him so eagerly that even he worries sometimes afterwards whether he may have been misunderstood. I wish I had a dime for every time that had happened to me. So, given my own personality, I enjoy that sort of person.

I also like St. Peter, largely because he strikes me as so delightfully goofy. When the Risen Christ appears upon the shore to Peter and his brothers while they’re fishing, Peter gets so excited that he throws on his cloak and jumps in the water to swim ashore. You’d have expected him to take his cloak off, but not Peter. And, of course, he’s very often saying the wrong thing (prompting Christ’s “Get thee behind me, Satan”); at the critical moment, he denies that he even knows Christ. And yet, he is the Rock upon which Christ built his Church. Goofiness like Peter’s gives me hope.

I could never get elected to any public office because any one of my students could give the press an earful of things I’ve said in class that would sink me instantly. Early on, I decided that I would enjoy myself in the classroom, whether anyone else did or not. I like to laugh. Thus, the goofiness. And I force my students to think more deeply by making contrarian comments or by asking probing questions – all things that, quoted out of context, could certainly be taken the wrong way. That’s why I find people like Pope Francis and St. Peter so enjoyable, while others find them a bit troubling: I enjoy their personalities.

And yet, my bias toward them is undoubtedly a bit unfair to other personalities God uses equally well. The Apostle Thomas, for example, has always struck me as a bit of a prig. Can you imagine telling all your closest friends – who have struggled and suffered beside you – that you won’t believe them unless you see it for yourself?  Jerk.

And James and John: the gall of those two! “We want to sit at your right hand and left when you come into your kingdom!” I hate social climbers and kiss-ups. But then again, God uses all sorts. We should learn that lesson from the apostles if we learn nothing else. Some are grave and taciturn, others are loquacious and passionate. Thus we get both a St. Peter and a St. Paul, a fisherman and a scholar, as in our own day we get a Pope Francis and a Pope Benedict. Either way, our faith isn’t in the human beings God has chosen. They are earthen vessels. Our faith is in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of time and to send His Holy Spirit to protect her.

Has this “medium” become the message?

And yet, although personally I enjoy Pope Francis, I also have a concern. Not because he says goofy things or does press conferences he probably shouldn’t. As I’ve admitted above, I actually kind of like that about him. And I’m not as worried as others about the way the press misinterprets his words. When has the press ever properly interpreted a pope’s words?  And who would be so foolish as to trust The New York Times for honesty and accuracy about the Church?

No, what concerns me about Pope Francis’s current situation is a concern I think he would share if he became aware of the problem. My concern is that, increasingly, Francis is becoming the message. And if I understand Francis correctly, I think he would find that, not only odd, but practically intolerable.

Francis seems to me a man who wants above all to “preach Christ,” who wants to point beyond himself to the Father, the way Christ Himself did, when asked by the rich young man, “What good must I do to have eternal life?” replied: “Why do you ask me?  Only one is good, our Father in heaven.” Indeed Christ tried in every way imaginable to avoid a “cult of personality” arising around him.

He frequently left the crowds unsatisfied to go off by Himself in the desert. And then there are Jesus’s repeated admonitions to those who have experienced his miracles not to tell anyone about this. One of Christ’s worst moments in John’s Gospel is after the miracle of the loaves and fishes when the crowds cry out to make him “king.” He runs away as fast as He can. Indeed, the journey to Calvary begins immediately thereafter.

Pope Francis isn’t exactly what most people would call “media savvy.” The problem for a man of humility who has no real concern for the media is that he may not understand the degree to which his own personality and style has come to dominate the message. He has become “the story.”  It was similar for Pope John Paul II in his early days. But then he wrote Redemptor Hominis and Familiaris Consortio and defended Humanae Vitae with his “the theology of the body,” and things started to change.

Pope Francis has been good at not letting the curia put him on a false golden throne. I don’t want the media to stick him on one either. That sort of “throne” is a prison.

The crowds proclaimed Christ their “king” when they thought they could control him – when they thought he would give them bread and political victories over their enemies. When they found out that the Kingdom he brought involved something more from them than just cheering from the sidelines, they crucified Him. 

Randall B. Smith is Professor at the University of St. Thomas, where he has recently been appointed to the Scanlan Chair in Theology.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, November 06, 2013
Dr Smith,
I never looked at it this way,so
true!I guess we should thank the lord he
is so pleasant!
written by Grump, November 06, 2013
Not to sound disrespectful but I bet it would be a blast to sit down with Francis with some beer and pretzels. He looks like a man who enjoys a good horselaugh, much like Bishop Sheen. So much of what is said by world leaders is scripted. It's refreshing when the Pope goes "off the cuff" and speaks spontaneously even though his words are often distorted by the media with a largely secular agenda.
written by Ray, November 06, 2013
Great piece as it provides hope! The New Testament was not about Jesus personality but what he preached and taught us. The closer we live our lives by those teachings the better. It seems the same should hold true for Il Papa. Pope JPII proved this by how he lived and died as an alter
Christos. I pray our current Pope will do the same in his own way.
written by Jack,CT, November 06, 2013
written by BillHocter, November 06, 2013
Excellent column. I like his goofiness as well.
written by STanley Anderson, November 06, 2013
I wonder if Randall Smith’s column might be summarized by this variant of a Scripture passage that can be found somewhere in one of the Gospels, I think:
And being on the internet at the blog of The Catholic Thing, as Randall wrote on his laptop, a Pope being interviewed on camera answered questions, having a casual style and a very goofy manner of spokenword. Then he broke their expectations and poured it on. But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this interview wasted? For it might have been traded for more than three hundred sentences of encyclical and given to the media.” And they criticized him sharply.

But Randall said, “Let him alone. Why do you trouble him? He has done a goofy work for preaching Christ. For you have the media with you always, and whenever you wish you may play them goofy; but Wisdom you do not have always. He has done what he could. He has come beforehand to anoint the Church with goofiness. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever goofiness is spontaneously uttered in any interview, what this man has done will also be told as a memorial to him.”
Or maybe not…
written by william manley, November 06, 2013
Conservatives continue to try to explain away Francis...he's naive, not media savvy, a new Pope making rookie mistakes. Now he is goofy. The truth is Francis is a determined Vicar of Christ who wants to re-direct our attention from doctrinal issues (rules) and get us focused on serving the spiritual and material needs of real people, whether they be famished in spirit or body. His approach is not academic; it is pastoral. He sees the Church as a healing place. He took the name Francis for a reason. Don't underestimate this man. Millions of Catholics are embracing his change of emphasis and eagerly await much needed changes in church policy and institutional practices.
written by Rich in MN, November 06, 2013
For someone such as myself who struggles with the sin of despondency over the rapid moral decay of the world around me, I really need a spiritual leader with some “street cred.” When some guy (soon to be “St. Some Guy”) pops out of the clerical woodwork and says, “Be not afraid,” my first inclination is to ask, “Has this guy ever encountered true evil?” Of course, he has. “This guy” (JPII) has faced evils that I would not want to imagine in my worst nightmares. He stared down Nazism and Communism, barbarism incarnate, where every day was either overt or covert war -- all the time, 24-7.

Similarly, when our current Holy Father, Pope Francis comes onto the scene and starts talking like some sort of “goofy” Polyanna grandfather, my gut reaction is to ask, “Does this guy know what is going on in the world today? Does he realize that Catholic teaching is devolving from the status of ‘hate speech’ and ‘bigotry’ to that of 'crime'?” Then I find out a few things about this guy: he was like some sort of hybrid between Harriet Tubman and a kleptoparasitic spider during the dark days of Argentine dictatorship, during which he risked his life and drew on cunning worthy of Jesus’ command in Matt 10:16 in his efforts to save others. And this guy who “has no right to judge” another person called gay marriage (which, btw, is not a person) “a machination of the Prince of Lies” and marched against it in Argentina. This guy definitely has some major street cred with me. I realize that “street cred” should never be a prerequisite for me following my Earthly shepherd, but it sure does help make the task easier.
written by Other Joe, November 06, 2013
A tiny (and perhaps pointless) quibble if I may. I believe there were two different crowds. The one was there to hear the Master speak. The other was AstroTurf, exhorted by leaders in the community for political ends. The one was made up of folks from the country and the other was a downtown crowd. One was a group of seekers, the other was out for blood sport. There is no textural support for the notion that when the seekers were told to act on their new knowledge, they rebelled. To say so is shorthand and glib. It is a fallen world and people are weak, but I will not believe an assertion that those who heard the Word rejected it on a whim en masse. Some did, with Judas at the top of the list, but not the whole crowd. To say so is to make the picture even more bleak than I hope it is. Although it is plenty bleak enough.
written by DS, November 06, 2013
The focus on Francis is due to many factors, not the least of which is the media age/culture in which we live. What is rarely discussed is how the role of the papacy has changed within the Church itself. The media is paying close attention to Francis because the Church itself (the clerical hierarchy, the Curia and the broader "people of God") has increasingly behaved this way with recent popes. Some have referred to this as the "papalization" of Catholicism. This article is a by-product of that trend.

One irony is that many who criticize Francis were ardent papalists under JP-II and Benedict, looking to Rome to correct every perceived failing in discipline, orthodoxy or liturgical practice.

My guess is that if you asked Francis the question about his popularity, he would answer in typical Jesuit fashion, with questions. "What do you see in me that fascinates you? Why? Do you really want to know me? For if you do, then you must learn to know who Jesus is."

I also believe the mass popularity of recent popes, especially John XXIII, JP-II and Francis, reflect a deep longing in the secular world for those things that are true and eternal. I could imagine Francis counseling us to use his popularity as an opportunity to engage with non-believers of goodwill in an earnest dialogue about the faith.

Francis is not goofy.
written by Walter, November 06, 2013
Just heard a rabbi friend of Francis interviewed. He was asked about the difference between Francis and Benedict. "Francis lives with his mind in heaven and his feet on earth. Benedict lived totally in heaven."
written by Marie Therese , November 07, 2013
"When they found out that the Kingdom he brought involved something more from them than just cheering from the sidelines, they crucified Him." When this media spirit of Palm Sunday starts to fade - as it must - it's going to get ugly. This sweet, goofy, highly-intelligent, ain't no fool Vicar of Christ needs our commitment and prayers of protection. Thank you for the reminder that the Passion is now and just ahead.
written by mike flynn, November 07, 2013
yes, indeed, the apologists are working triple time. let's hope francis can blink soon and stop adoring himself in the mirror. forces of evil will use him until he does.
written by GG, November 07, 2013
Goofy? Genius evangelist? Media savvy? Who knows? What is apparent is that many of the crop of Franciscophiles are more giddy about Francis than about the Gospel or the Catholic faith. It's all about Francis! Unfortunately, Francis himself seems okay with this.
written by Randall B. Smith, November 07, 2013
The Author Replies:

Articles can sometimes be a Rorschach Test of readers. I suspected this might be the case with this particular article because of its subject matter.

Look again, and you'll find I've not criticized the Pope. At most, I've expressed concerns about the way he is viewed by some, especially some of those in the media.

Some people like his sort of personality and approach, others are more troubled by it. Personally, I'm less troubled and more delighted by him, but then again, as I've admitted, I'm also biased. Isn't everybody? We like things that flatter our own expectations and personalities and tend to disfavor things that don't.

If I were trying to be more clever, I might have said something like this: "I really like Pope Francis, but then again, I'm a notoriously bad judge of popes," because, of course, I really have no idea what the Holy Spirit has in mind for the Church at this moment in history, other than that He is always at work for the salvation of mankind, now as ever and until the end of time.

The key point in the piece (to my mind at least) was this: Whatever one thinks about Francis's particular personality and approach to the papacy, we should have faith that "God uses all sorts."

"We should learn that lesson from the apostles if we learn nothing else. Some are grave and taciturn, others are loquacious and passionate. Thus we get both a St. Peter and a St. Paul, a fisherman and a scholar, as in our own day we get a Pope Francis and a Pope Benedict. Either way, our faith isn’t in the human beings God has chosen. They are earthen vessels. Our faith is in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of time and to send His Holy Spirit to protect her."

Whether you "luv" that openhearted John XXIII and just hate that crabby Pius XII, or adore that holy defender of the faith Pius IX and are embarrassed by that oddball Pope John Paul I, it's all the same in the end. The Holy Spirit chooses who He chooses, and He uses who He uses. Personally, I prefer not to second guess Him.

But in the end, we'd better keep our eye on what really matters: Christ.

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