Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The ‘Pope Francis effect’—changing the way the world sees the papacy

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 29, 2014

A long-overdue reform of the Vatican’s media operations is still only in the planning stages, yet the “Pope Francis effect” has already become evident in the way the Vatican handles the news.

Take a look at today’s statement from the Vatican Information Service (VIS), about the Pope’s visit to the Church of Reconciliation in Caserta. The Vatican release summarizes the Pope’s remarks to the Evangelical congregation. Of course. That’s what you would expect.

But what you would not expect, if you read Vatican releases on a regular basis, is equal treatment for the remarks of the Pope’s host, Pastor Giovanni Traettino. I have been reading VIS releases on a daily basis for nearly 20 years now, and I can testify that in the past, when the Pope has been one of two or more speakers at a public event, the Vatican barely mentions the others; the focus is always on the Pontiff. A speech by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople or the Cardinal Secretary of State may merit a summary, but never as much coverage as the Pope’s talk. Yet here the Vatican news service took pains to provide a fair summary of the talk given by an Evangelical pastor. L’Osservatore Romano’s coverage was remarkably similar, devoting roughly equal space to the Pope’s remarks and those of Pastor Traettino.

Now if you’re tempted to think that the Vatican is slipping into religious indifferentism, by putting a Protestant minister on equal footing with the Pope, please stop. VIS is a news service, serving the needs of journalists. A statement by the Roman Pontiff is certainly more authoritative than one by a Protestant leader, but it is not necessarily more newsworthy. The Vatican evidently wanted to call attention to the words with which Pastor Traettino greeted the Pope.

Still I have no question that this new approach represents a shift in the way Vatican officials view the papal office—a shift that Pope Francis is doing everything that he can to encourage. The “old” approach treats the Pope like an 18th-century monarch, and suggests that when he is in the room, everyone else present pales into insignificance. The “new” approach treats the Pontiff as an ordinary human being—admittedly one with extraordinary responsibility and commensurate authority—in conversation with other human beings who might have interesting things to say.

Clearly Pope Francis is on a campaign to remind the world—and, yes, to remind his aides at the Vatican—that the Bishop of Rome is not a temporal potentate, and the spiritual authority of the papacy should not be camouflaged by the trappings of an archaic monarchy. That message, I sense, is beginning to sink in.

Ready for another illustration of my point? Check out this report from Vatican Radio, on the Pope’s earlier visit with Catholic priests in Caserta. To be more specific, take a good look at the photo that appears on the top of the Vatican Radio report. Do you notice anything unusual?

I do. The Holy Father is sitting beside another bishop (I assume that’s Bishop Giovanni D’Alise of Caserta) at a small table. The Pope is not seated on a throne, not set apart, not alone on a raised platform, not even on a higher chair. He is seated beside his brother bishop as any other man might be seated beside a colleague at a business meeting. At first glance it seems so natural, and in fact it is. But again I can testify that in 20+ years of following news from the Vatican, I cannot recall similar staging for any public appearance by a Roman Pontiff.

Some good Catholics regret this Pope’s approach, I realize. Some people love the traditional honors reserved for the Roman Pontiff. For myself, I have trouble imagining St. Peter in a cappa magna let alone a sedia gestatoria. Traditions can enrich us, but they can also sometimes imprison us. If the “old ways” of the Vatican have interfered with the exercise of the Pope’s spiritual leadership, then the changes wrought by the “Pope Francis effect” may be a tonic.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 30, 2014 11:33 PM ET USA

    Today there is a regrettable reticence in testifying to the apostolic offices. (They are apostolic!) This strikes at the core of the priesthood- immolation of self. Pope St. Pius X provided a striking example of humility in accepting the office and then fearlessly exercising authority. Card. Mueller has been a great example of late in "shifting gears" commensurate with the ominous duties of his office, abandoning ideology, and affirming Church teaching resolutely. This takes great humility.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 30, 2014 9:55 AM ET USA

    Give credit for this egalitarian approach to Pope St. John Paul II. I recall when he asked that his chair and that of his guest, the Rabbi of Rome, be the same at a Vatican reception. Everyone was surprised, even the Rabbi. But it set a trend that Francis has picked up. Also, I never thought that Benedict XVI was presented in a regal manner. Media made fun of his red shoes without getting the significance of them. He's a very plain person and did not seek attention.

  • Posted by: unum - Jul. 29, 2014 11:27 PM ET USA

    One has only to read about St. Francis of Assisi to understand where Pope Francis is going with these reforms. St. Francis gave glory to God by the humility of his service to others, just as Jesus did. Pope Francis is leading the Church in his footsteps, showing us by example that the Christian life is about service to others.

  • Posted by: Contrary1995 - Jul. 29, 2014 6:43 PM ET USA

    Humility and poverty are first and foremost interior personal dispositions. You cannot tell a pauper by his clothes.