Pope Francis celebrates his first year in office today, vindicating the choice made by the College of Cardinals. The man is a genius at public relations.
There are leaders who are concerned about form, and others who are concerned about content. Form is a matter of appearances, and Francis is a master of appearances. He knows how to work a rope line like a seasoned American politician. He also knows how to manipulate the media by offering them visual images and sound bites that play up his humble Jesuit roots. He may be as humble as he appears to be, or it could just be an act, but if it is an act, it is a damned good one.
Believing Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and even non-Catholics have taken to this pope, drawn by his public pronouncements that sound like they are being uttered by someone who was born in the 20th century, rather than the 19th.
Pope Francis has the highest approval rating of any world leader, with 88 percent of American Catholics approving of how he has implemented his reign, and 75 percent of all Americans give him high marks as a leader. President Obama gets a 43 percent approval rating. German Chancellor Angela Merkel get 45 percent. UN Secretary General BanKi-moon gets 39% and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin gets 28 percent.
Dubbed Man of the Year by Time Magazine, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a first generation Argentine of Italian extraction. He is the first pope from a South American country, and the first from the Western Hemisphere. He took Francis as his pontifical name, honoring the founder of the Franciscan Order, the first time in more than a thousand years that a pope has chosen a name never used before by a pontiff. He pointedly did not choose to honor Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order.
Francis refused the ornate red cape and miter worn by previous popes, paid his hotel bill out of his own pocket the night he was elevated, rode back to his two room apartment in a Vatican hostel for visiting priests in a bus with other priests, and continues to live in that apartment rather than in the official apostolic apartments. He reportedly drives himself around Rome in a 28 year-old Renault with a 185,000 miles on it (but he may have switched to a much newer Ford Focus.)
During his first year as the 266th pontiff, Francis has tacitly rejected the concept of papal infallibility (“Who am I to judge”), defrocked 300 priests for failing to utter the liturgically required “Good morning,” before continuing with the Penitential Liturgy, suggested that local and national bishop’s councils should have more local decision-making power, declared that women must be more involved in the decision-making process of the church. He washed the feet of a dozen young inmates in a Roman jail, invited homeless people to join him at his birthday celebration.
Contrary to popular belief, he has not changed the Church’s dogma on abortion, birth control, homosexuality or gay marriage but he has shown himself to be more receptive to the conversation.
Now in office for one year, Francis is playing Vatican roulette with power brokers within the Papal Curia, the often-Byzantine bureaucracy that runs the Catholic Church worldwide. As the absolute monarch charged with supervising the spiritual welfare of the world’s one billion Catholics, Francis is at the same time one of the most powerful men in the world, and one of the least able world leaders when it comes to projecting power through military force, because he has none.
Francis is powerful because his rule is law within the Catholic church. Dissent is not only impossible in Catholicism, it is literally unthinkable. You do not argue with a sitting pope about papal doctrine. As powerful as he is within his own church, Francis is the only world leader without an army at his disposal, without a monetary system to manipulate, without trade agreements or military treaties. Ruler of the single largest voting block in the world, he is also the ruler of the world’s smallest nation-state.
The last time the people of the world were so taken with a pope, John Paul the First, who undertook similar reforms during his first days in office, passed away 33 days after his election under mysterious circumstances. Reports vary, but the official cause of death, heart failure, was never confirmed because, in accordance with Vatican tradition, popes are never subjected to autopsies.
Popes have often been victims of foul play. The history of the papacy is rife with assassinations, rival popes going to war with each other over the right to rule the Catholic church, and rival kingdoms vying for control over the papacy and, hence, the church. Pope Francis is not ignorant about the nature of the hot seat he inherited from Benedict. From all reports he’s a canny political operative, accustomed to negotiating the tricky waters of South American politics.
This pope ascended St. Peter’s chair at a time when social media has created an entirely new force in culture, and his reaction has been to ask people to”cut it out.” He does not want to be mythologized because being mythologized is just one step away from eulogy and he is not ready to be eulogized yet.
Far from being a one man show, Francis has moved to democratize the church, calling for a “conversion different nations should have genuine doctrinal authority. In moving away from the traditional posture of papal infallibility, Francis has introduce a syllogistic conundrum, as pope who is trying to give away some of the pope’s power by edict.
As Pope Francis celebrates his first year in office, a lot of people are wondering what this unusual pope will do next.
By Alan M. Milner
(Follow me on Twitter at @alanmilner)