Religion

The Pope and His Airplane Interviews

In an age of spin, Pope Francis embraces spontaneity

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AP Photo/Luca Zennaro, Pool

Catholics the world over are getting used to Pope Francis’ informal conversations with journalists on board the papal plane on his journey home. The conversations have become a tradition. They invariably raise a few hackles, prompt a few misunderstandings and stir up a few complacent attitudes. The Pope clearly thinks the risk is worth it, and now that we have got used to the conversations we can see that the Holy Father is accomplishing more through these conversations than first meets the eye.
 
When the pope meets with journalists on the plane the atmosphere is informal. He takes questions and answers them off the cuff. He feels free to shoot from the hip and speak from the heart. The text of his last airborne interview is available here from the Catholic News Agency. To read the text is to be taken into an intimate and astounding conversation with the Holy Father.
 
Through these informal interviews with journalists Pope Francis is proving to be a master of communication. He has been criticized for being imprecise and confusing. This is to misunderstand what the Pope is trying to accomplish through these interviews. He wants the world to meet him and get to know him as a real, vital and passionate person. In the interviews he speaks from the heart to the heart. This quality is especially noticeable in his conversation with journalists traveling back from Manila.
 
The Pope was clearly deeply moved by the massive turnout in the Philippines. He was touched by the warmth, the joy, and the overwhelming faith and hope of the people. He was overcome with emotion when he was with those who suffered from the tropical storm at Tacloban.
 
When asked what he had received from the Philippinos he said, “The gestures! The gestures moved me… they are good gestures, felt gestures, gestures of the heart. Some almost make one weep. There’s everything there: faith, love, the family, the illusions, the future! A gesture that is original, but born from the heart…A second gesture that struck me very much is an enthusiasm that is not feigned, a joy, a happiness, a capacity to celebrate.  Even under the rain, one of the masters of ceremonies told me that he was edified because those who were serving…in the rain never lost the smile. It’s the joy, not feigned joy.  It wasn’t a false smile. No, no!  It was a smile that just came out, and behind that smile there is a normal life, there are pains, problems.”
 
In speaking from the heart, Pope Francis is showing the world his true passion for people and passion for the faith. This emotional heart is best revealed in the informal atmosphere of a human conversation rather than in the conditions of formality. To do so with journalists is to share his open heart with the world.
 
There is a second reason the airplane interviews are a brilliant idea. We have now figured out that they are a new form of papal communication. The conversations are natural, spontaneous and unplanned. Sometimes the pope will make a human mistake in his passionate desire to speak from the heart of Christ. In the flight from Manila he said Catholics do not need to “breed like rabbits.” On the flight from Brazil he said about a priest who struggles with same sex attraction, “Who am I to judge?” We have now accepted that these are not formal, dogmatic statements from the infallible pontiff. They are informal conversations with the happy, but sometimes haphazard Papa Bergoglio, and that it is okay.
 
The third reason the papal airplane interviews are a success is that they strengthen the pope’s relationship with the world’s press. The journalists clearly love and respect this pope. They hold great power and he holds great power. Both sides realize this and both sides like and respect one another. Pope Francis knows that if he wants to communicate the positive power of the gospel and the great good news of the Catholic faith, that he needs sympathetic and understanding journalists to help him do that. His airplane interviews are therefore a chance to schmooze with the journalists, give them some face time, build relationships and partner with them in the complicated business of communications in the modern age.