I love it when you call me ‘Il Papa': Examining the celebrity of Pope Francis

Image by DonkeyHotey.

Image by DonkeyHotey.

By Brandon Bub
March 11, 2014

March 13th is the anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis. It’s days like this that I’m glad the term “Pope-iversary” is not a widely accepted journalistic term. What are we to make of the former Jesuit priest’s turn at the papacy so far? Is he the reform pope we’ve all been waiting for? Is it only a matter of time before we see women ordained as priests, gay marriages recognized as legitimate in the Church, and birth control promoted as a matter of course?

For better or worse, none of these outcomes are likely under this pope or any future pope. The fact of the matter is the fervor surrounding Pope Francis has often created expectations that outstrip reality. Even Francis himself recognizes the influence of this cult of personality. In a recent interview with an Italian newspaper, he chided the media for what he sees as artificial adulation of his public persona:

Depicting the pope as a sort of superman, a sort of star, is offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends like everyone else; a normal person.”

Even the “Francis effect” that many thought might bring about a renaissance of the Catholic Church in American public life seems overstated. While a broad majority of American Catholics believe that the pope represents a major (and positive) change in direction for the Church, his popularity thus far has not spurred more people to attend Mass, go to Confession, or identify as Catholic. Does this mean that the man will not be the catalyst for change we thought?

Pope Francis greets a crowd in Varginha, Brazil in July 2013. Photo by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.

Pope Francis greets a crowd in Varginha, Brazil in July 2013. Photo by Agência Brasil, a public Brazilian news agency.

The case of Pope Francis reminds me of another recently elected public figure who entered the global stage amidst optimistic expectations of reform. Consider this news story from about five years ago: in February 2009, the newly inaugurated and almost universally extolled President Barack Obama was hosting a town hall meeting in Fort Myers, Fla. He called on college student Julio Osegueda to ask a question (to which the young man replied, “Oh thank you Gracious God!”). Osegueda asked Obama what the president could promise for wage-working students like him. Obama promised both Osegueda and the American public payroll tax credits (which we got with the Stimulus Package), easier access to health insurance (which we more or less got with Obamacare), and better student loan rates (which we never quite got). But at the time, these answers hardly seemed to matter to Osegueda: suddenly the young man was an instant celebrity, appearing on TV shows like Keith Olbermann’s Countdown. He even got a part-time job as a baseball team radio announcer, all thanks to the aura of the Messiah…I mean, President Obama.

Today, President Obama’s approval ratings are lower than ever before. But to say that he has failed as president would be just as incorrect as saying that Pope Francis will be the most important thing to happen to the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation. The problem is that we simply just do not know yet. It’s tempting to try to pick winners and losers early on because it gives us a narrative around which to arrange the rest of our facts: Obama is a Jedi politician, or an evil socialist–the pope is a bottom-up reformer, or a crazy Marxist. Obama and Francis both make for great media targets precisely because people tend to have strong opinions about them one way or the other. But regardless of how we might feel about their political/theological doctrines, we have to be realistic in what we expect of them. With Francis especially, it is foolish to think that the man will reverse thousands of years of Church teaching; however, more measured reforms like the full ordination of married priests or more powerful roles for women in Church leadership might be worth looking out for. So if I have any advice for fellow news junkies in the next year, it would be this: stay skeptical, but stay real.

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