The ‘Francis effect’ – separating the myth from the reality

Pope Francis has had a revolutionary impact on Catholic life, and there are some important differences between him and his predecessors. But I think that the popular media narrative misrepresents the contrast.

Pope Francis doesn't have a monopoly on firsts. Photo: CNS
Pope Francis doesn’t have a monopoly on firsts. Photo: CNS

For example, Francis wears black shoes, which the media judges to be more humble than Benedict’s red shoes — but mention is seldom made of John Paul’s brown shoes. That ruins the narrative I guess.

Or consider the AP’s breathless report on Francis’ first overseas trip: “Keeping to his example that the Catholic Church must be humble, Francis carried his own black hand luggage. He even kept holding it with his left hand while he used his right to shake hands with some of the VIPs who turned out to wish him well and while he climbed the stairs to the jet’s entrance.”

If you cringe at that sort of coverage, you’re in good company. The Holy Father himself is embarrassed: “I have always taken a bag with me when travelling — it’s normal. But we must be normal … I don’t know … what you say is a bit strange for me, that the photograph went all over the world. But we must get used to being normal. The normality of life.”

Perhaps more understandably, journalists misinterpreted the pope’s decision to live in the Domus Sanctæ Marthæ. It was not, as widely reported, a prophetic gesture against the lavish living of previous popes.

Francis explains: “The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”

There’s no denying Pope Francis is a man of humility and asceticism. It’s just that his predecessors were, too.

Nor does Francis have a monopoly on innovative firsts.

Benedict XVI was the first pope to grant print and TV interviews. John Paul II was the first pope to visit his parishes, and the first pope to sneak out of the Vatican. John Paul I was the first pope to refuse coronation, and Paul VI was the first pope to simplify the Habemus Papam appearance on the loggia. John XXIII was the first pope named TIME’s Man of the Year, and you have to cast back to Pius X to locate the first — and in fact only — pope who delivered weekly Sunday homilies.

I could go on, but the point is made. Ours are radically changing times, and every modern pope has broken precedent. But there’s one point of contrast, very significant in the life of the Church, which is overlooked in most reports of ‘the Francis effect.’

Personnel in the Catholic Establishment are heeding the pope.

That’s more ground-breaking than you might realise.

A priest I know speaks of the newfound hope he has experienced since the election of Francis. It underlines how downcast he felt previously. “Francis,” he says, “is a breath of fresh air.” He contrasts the vitality and joy of Francis with what he perceives as the defensiveness and shrillness of his predecessors.

He has read Evangelii Gaudium several times (no mean feat!), and plumbed its depths. But because he is humble, he readily admits that on several occasions, he has underlined a phrase that moves him, referred to the footnote, and been startled by the realisation that Francis is quoting Benedict or John Paul, from documents he never read.

At ‘mainstream’ gatherings of church personnel and clergy, Francis is frequently quoted, and his example repeatedly lauded. I don’t recall Benedict receiving comparable treatment when he was pope.

These observations are only anecdotal, but I think they point to a phenomenon that may resonate with others. A large number of self-styled ‘Vatican II Catholics’, who had basically ignored John Paul II and Benedict, are presently energised and nourished by Francis’ teaching and example.

I myself number among ‘the JP2 generation,’ and admire the Polish pope as a giant among men. I wept at his death, and I rejoiced at his canonisation. I esteem Benedict as one of the greatest theologians ever elected to the papacy, and I imagine he’ll one day be named a Doctor of the Church.

Hence I cannot pretend to understand the despondency of my elders; the ‘Vatican II generation’. I certainly don’t mean to be condescending — and if anyone feel patronised, please accept my apologies. All I know — and this I’ve gleaned from many years listening to seminary professors who exalt the council — is that great energy and excitement was stirred in the 1960s, and it has ebbed ever since.

Pope Francis, it seems to me, has revived some of that spirit, and in so doing motivated a generation of Catholics to heed, as if for the first time, the popes of their lifetime.

This is not a criticism. Far from it. Peter is our rock; our shepherd; our Holy Father. Catholics heeding Peter – thoughtfully and critically, not slavishly – is always cause to celebrate.

This is one ‘Francis effect’ I can believe in.