There has been a spate of articles this last week examining every aspect of the first year of Pope Francis’s pontificate. Suffice to say, he has generated an enormous amount of publicity that goes well beyond his very public office. If you examine the media interest in the first year of the pontificates of both his immediate predecessors, you do not find this feverish interest.
John Paul II was also a relative unknown; he was seen as an intellectual heavyweight and a man of immense energy, ready to engage with the press – but he was not a “conversational” pope in the ordinary meaning of the word. Benedict XVI was already famous as head of the CDF. He carried his reputation before him and his papal style did not alter; shy, precise, learned, he remained an enigma to the secular world.
But Pope Francis is in sharp contrast to these recent popes. What causes a buzz of excitement in the media (and inspiration or dismay among his flock, depending on your viewpoint) is his very humanity and candour, his willingness to be personal, his admission of weakness. He has brought his exalted office down to earth in a way that hasn’t happened before. John XXIII started to do this: remember his joke when he was asked how many people worked in the Vatican? “About half of them,” he responded, with more than a grain of truth. But his pontificate was short and dominated by Vatican II and his last illness.
Now, and in answer to the implicit question, how has Pope Francis inspired (and intrigued) me during this first year, I would answer: he has shown the human face of holiness. To be able to radiate an absorption in the Gospel with an unabashed simplicity, is a difficult feat – most especially if you hold a position which means that the world’s eyes are on you at all times, waiting for a slip-up or gaffe. This is Pope Francis’s charism, his gift – and this is why the media, ravenous for news but also trying to decipher his personality, is paying attention to him.
Most of us, including popes, have a public persona, that aspect of our personality we present in public; it’s not dishonesty, merely an instinctive coping device. Pope Francis doesn’t seem to have this; he is always transparently himself, and has been since he first appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s: paying his own bill after his election, travelling in the bus with his cardinals, choosing to live in a community because he wanted the company, eschewing some of the usual trappings of papal dress.
Friends of Elizabeth II say she lost some of her spontaneity when she succeeded her father on the throne. This was inevitable: the private woman and the public Queen. With Francis there seems to be no distinction between the two. Every time I read his sayings, speeches and interviews this is more vividly brought home to me. For example, in the most recent interview with Corriere della Sera, reported by CNA, he explains one of the ways he keeps in touch with the pastoral aspect of his priesthood: he regularly phones an elderly widow who had lost a child. “She wrote to me. And now I call her every month. She is happy, I am a priest. I like it.”
Again, speaking of his relationship with Benedict XVI and why he doesn’t want the Pope Emeritus to live in permanent “retreat”, he explained: “I thought of grandparents and their wisdom. Their counsels give help to the family and they do not deserve to be in an elderly home.” Two brief remarks, giving a glimpse of Francis’s sense of his priestly vocation, how he needs affirmation from others, how the Church – enormous, venerable, bureaucratic (some would say sclerotic) – is also a family. Pope Francis’s conversational remarks are a catechesis all on their own.
In the same interview, the Holy Father added, “Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.” That is the key to him. We have put past popes on a pedestal, created a mythology around them (something the Pope has specifically rejected) and made their office lonelier than it should be. How do you stay “normal” in such an “abnormal” position? Pope Francis gives us the answer.
If I were asked my favourite anecdote (so far) of Pope Francis it would be the story he told when he addressing priests in the Rome diocese recently. Indeed, I found it so riveting I was amazed it did not receive wider coverage. The Pope broke from his prepared text (as he does) to tell how he had once taken a cross from the coffin of an Argentine priest he admired. “I looked at the rosary the priest was holding. And I thought immediately about the thief we all have inside us… I grabbed hold of the rosary cross and pulled it off, applying some force. At that very moment I looked at him and I said to him, ‘Give me half of your mercy,’” Francis told the priests, before adding that he has special pockets sewn into his shirts so he can keep the cross at his breast. “Whenever I have a bad thought about someone, I always place my hand here and I feel the grace,” he said.
It’s hard to take all this in: at first the open coffin (a tradition we no longer have over here) where the dead person is subliminally “present” at his wake; then the Holy Father’s acknowledgment of a very human acquisitiveness; then the impulsive deed itself; finally the demand of his dead friend’s own gift of mercy, along with Francis’s admission of a very human weakness – occasional unkind thoughts about others. It’s an electrifying, extraordinary, dramatic story.
I hope I will never get used to reading such heart-stopping personal anecdotes of our new Holy Father. As I said, they are a catechesis all of their own.