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The celebrity Pope


Pope Francis smiling on the cover of Il Mio PapaPope Francis' first year in office has been crowned by the appearance of Sergio Berlusconi's new magazine, Il Mio Papa. Berlusconi has never lost money getting his audience wrong. His magazine is testimony that the Pope is now mythical, a celebrity, and that the myth can be manipulated, marketed and monetised.

It is difficult to give an accounting for celebrities. They demand absolutes: each one is utterly new; what they replace is out of date. But merely popping their balloon also misses what in them attracts popular attention.

So it is with evaluating what is distinctive about Pope Francis and what he has already contributed to the Catholic Church. It is hard to move beyond such self-evident banalities as that he takes his Catholic doctrine and ethical teaching seriously, that he is approachable, that he is not a liberal theologian, and that he is free in his approach to security and liturgy.

More thoughtful analyses have explored opposites. His distinctive contribution is said to have lain not in substance but in style, not in theological exploration but in pastoral reach, and not to have touched the essentials of faith but accidentals.

Each of these sets of paired phrases is useful for fixing what Pope Francis is not. But they do not explore the coherence between the gestures that constantly surprise. Nor do they explain the enchantment of so many people, within and without the Catholic Church, reflective and unreflective, many of whom have been disappointed and disillusioned by the Catholic Church.

It may be more helpful to explore what Pope Francis transparently shares with previous popes, namely the strength of the faith in Christ that animates them all, and seek to identify his distinctive perspective.

At the core of Christian faith is the conviction that in Christ God has joined humanity, and that the Incarnation changes the world. The Christmas story, which brings together the immensity of God and the vulnerability of the newborn child, embodies this.

The belief that God has joined us in a human life, that Christ is divine and human, can be imagined in two ways. The first perspective emphasises the contrast between the greatness of God and the nothingness of humanity, and so focuses on the value that God adds in Christ.

When we see the world from this perspective we naturally imagine boundaries between the church and the world outside, Christians and non-believers, church teaching and secular wisdom. We emphasise the sacredness of language, ministry and ritual in liturgy as bearers of transcendence. The business of the church is to draw others into its holiness.

The second perspective on the Incarnation is one of wonder that in Christ humanity with its sinfulness and weakness could be intimately linked to God. That a human being can be united to God shows the value that God sees and loves in each human being and in the world.

From this perspective God reaches out to the whole world, emphasising the humanity Christians share with others. In liturgy the preciousness of apparently ordinary people, words and household utensils is revealed when illuminated in prayer. The business of the Church is to go out to people embodying God's love for them.

These imaginative perspectives are different but complementary. Each can be woven into a theology that brings together the key Christian themes of creation, sin, grace, salvation through Christ, church and sacraments.

The way in which Pope Francis acts and speaks suggests that he sees the world from the second perspective. He instinctively looks for connections with people inside and outside the Catholic Church rather than differences. So he lives in a guest house, dresses simply, washes the feet of a Muslim woman on Holy Thursday, at Lampedusa does penance for the deaths of asylum seekers at an altar constructed from the wood of their boats, goes to slums as well as churches, does unconstrained interviews with atheists, and consistently uses popular idiom to speak to people about Christ. He surprises by testing boundaries on behalf of the excluded.

When he imagines the church and ministry, it is as a military hospital serving the world at its edges. Bishops and priests are to live simply as their people, to go out to them and to smell like the sheep.

In this perspective and in Francis' gestures, going out compassionately to the excluded, whether they be prisoners, asylum seekers or slum dwellers embodies most strikingly the value of each human being whom God loves. Their exclusion and devaluing are also evidence of a world out of joint, in which compassion is lacking. This is why Francis speaks so bluntly about the greed and liberal economics that put profit before people.

Francis has been so attractive because the vision of a church that would attract people to its holiness by marking out boundaries had become incredible. The church of sexual abuse, of internal squabbling and of prissiness simply did not look holy. The air had grown foetid. But many people still looked to churches to nurture the possibility that they might ultimately be loveable and valued in all their weakness. Francis has encouraged that hope.

How might we expect to be surprised in future? We should expect Francis to go outside the usual structures to build resources. We should expect him to continue to cross boundaries to reach out to people who are excluded. We should expect him to continue to speak trenchantly of unjust economic systems. We should expect him to try to make church structures work and encourage a church that goes out in compassion. But we should not expect him to take structures with enormous seriousness. They are not the main game.

Berlusconi's Il Mio Papa will need to be a censored version.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

One of the themes which recurs repeatedly in the New Testament in the parables and miracles of Jesus is that he came not to make people holy in an artificial, stilted sense, but to make them whole. We ourselves are often so alienated from our true selves we cannot see that. Pope Francis appears to have taken up the challenge to actually live the Gospel. He shows that a genuinely religious person can also be quite normal: which is the way it should be.

Edward Fido | 12 March 2014  

"How might we expect to be surprised in future?"[welcome to0th century guys
His Holiness is an action replay of Pius IX-who later defined Infallibility
Wiki notes in detail:
"The election of the liberal Pius IX created much enthusiasm in Europe and elsewhere. Celebrations and ovations were offered in several countries. Although he was not unknown and had done nothing on an administrative level before his election, and although there were no utterances from him, he was soon the most famous and popular person in the world.

For the next twenty months after the election, Pius IX was the most popular man on the Italian peninsula, where the exclamation "Long life to Pius IX!" was often heard.[15]

English Protestants celebrated him as a friend of light and a reformer of Europe towards freedom and progress.[16] He was elected without political influences from outside and in the best years of his life. He was pious, progressive, intellectual, decent, friendly, and open to everybody."[17]:

Father John George | 12 March 2014  

Francis an action replay of Pius IX, John George? I somehow don't expect him to define infallibility though, at least not in relation to himself.

Anna Summerfield | 13 March 2014  

Andrew, you ask, “How might we expect to be surprised in future?” It seems that the media has chosen to disregard Francis’ greatest (and very negative) ‘surprise’ to date. In his interview with Corriere della Sera, Wednesday last week, Francis at last commented on the Church’s handling of clerical child sexual abuse. NCR observed that, “Francis sounded like he was reading from a script that should have been abandoned years ago.” In remarks similar to those made by Cardinal Pell on the appointment of the Royal Commission on Child Sexual Abuse (for which he was excoriated by the media), Francis said: "The Catholic church is maybe the only public institution to have moved with transparency and responsibility … No one else has done more. Yet the church is the only one to be attacked.” http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/english-translation-of-pope-francis-corriere-della-sera-interview Is Pope Francis unaware of the Church’s institutional failures in following Christ’s teachings, in exposing more children to abuse by protected abusers posing as pastors, through non-reporting to civil authorities and reassignment by Church authorities of those accused of child abuse (the ‘cover-up’). If Francis cannot see that the autocratic male structures of the Church have resulted in a Church that is unChrist-like and therefore failing in its mission, he will sadly be little more than a celebrity pope.

Peter Johnstone | 13 March 2014  

Tonight I read 3 articles, first from Paul Collins, second from Megan Graham and the last one from Father Andrew Hamilton (the celebrity Pope). I will not comment on the first two, But the last one, Father Hamilton, Thank you, I agree with you.

Ron Cini | 14 March 2014  

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