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Francis: The Man and the Message

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 [1] 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 a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.