It’s clear from the attention paid by the media to Pope Francis on his recent trip to Cuba and the US that the pope–both the office and the person of the current holder of the office–is somebody with whom the media can “do business.” The media know who and what a pope is. That sounds banal in the extreme; but the media deals in banality, in celebrity, in sound bites and excitement; and the pope supplies all of these, and manages even so to communicate his messages to many.
In the last twenty years, in fact, the media have “anointed” (as it were) the pope as the head of the Christian church, the world community of Christians. What after the Reformation of the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was unable to achieve by apologetic or polemic, the media has enacted on its behalf. The pope, both in office and in person, is mediagenic in a way that no other Christian leader is. A major contributor to this was the charismatic personality of John Paul II. Another factor has been the fact that the pope has been in terms of colourful public style the last of the great Italian princes–arriverderci i Orsini, i Barberini, i Doria Pampilii, i Medici. However, Pope Francis has made it clear that he wants to live simply. He is driven in a small car, and lives, not in the Vatican Palace, but in a guesthouse for visiting clergy. This is a very small thing: but I noticed when he spoke to the US Congress that his pectoral cross was of silver rather than gold–I found this significant.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the chair of the Pentecostal World Fellowship (which comprises some 25% of the world’s Christians), even the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, important as they may be to their own constituencies, are of minimal interest or less to the media, especially to television, which is the most universal and formative of the media. Active members of their churches may know who they are, but to the hundreds of millions of members of other faith traditions, it is the pope who is the head of the Christian Church in an undifferentiated sense, and with no particular regard to the history with which the various denominations justify their separateness. To the average Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim, the pope is simply the head of the Christian Church.
I believe we have now come to a moment when it is in the interests of these churches to co-operate maximally with the Roman Catholic Church on matters of global concern–climate change, nuclear weapons, refugees, peace and reconciliation. On their own, they can do very little. However, if they can channel what resources they still have (recognizing that they are all in numerical decline, as is the Roman Catholic Church itself) into support for the pope’s initiatives, they can still make a greater contribution to what the Jews call tikkun olam, the healing of the world, by supporting the pope, than they can on their own.
I would like to see, for example, an arrangement whereby the pope, when speaking to the world as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, would make it clear that he was doing so; and when he was speaking in the role in which the media have anointed him, “the head of the Christian Church,” he would also make it clear that he was doing so. In this second eventuality, I would see him sharing the podium, so to speak, with the church leaders I have mentioned, preferably in person, although at other times, perhaps, simply by naming them and their constituencies as concurring in what he was saying.
Thus if he were speaking on matters on which other Christians take issue (abortion, homosexuality, conception, the ordination of women), he would speak alone. But when, for example, he was speaking, as he already has, on the urgency of peace in Syria, or what he calls inclusion or non-exclusion of the marginalized, he would speak with the concurrence of the rest of the Christians of the world.
What makes me think this is possible–it is certainly necessary–is of course the amazing personality and impact of Pope Francis himself. He is continuing as he began, with no desire to continue in the mode of the great Italian princes, and with his clear distancing of himself in style and tone from his two immediate predecessors, he has made the papal office enormously attractive. Example: a friend of mine, a member of the United Church of Canada, asked me some months ago, “So what do you think about our new pope?” Our new pope? The United Church now has a pope? [ ] Through word and gesture he has created a strong sense of human connection with many who do not belong to his church, or even to his faith.
I believe that we are at this moment looking through a particular window of opportunity. The forces of reaction in his church are already gearing up to oppose him in various ways; and this being so, I would see as very timely the suggestion I am making, that the rest of us support him in the directions which he has so far charted. As leader of the Roman Catholic Church, he is the world’s most visible and audible Christian leader and teacher. He represents 17% of the world’s population, a world which, Christian and otherwise, is looking in this complex and challenging time for spiritual and moral leadership.
Many American commentators on this recent journey referred to him as the “pontiff.” This is the English term for one of his ancient titles, one he inherited in fact from the Roman Empire: pontifex maximus, “greatest bridge-builder.” More than any of his recent predecessors (with the exception of John XXIII), he has in his short time as pope built bridges both within and beyond his own community. For the sake of the well-being of what in his recent encyclical he called “our common home,” my hope is that all of us in a position to do so will give him our full support as his ministry continues.
Viva il Papa!