Pope Francis' spontaneous, personal style is attractive, but it also makes his words easier to twist by unscrupulous reporters. But Pope Francis should keep modeling Christian behavior, which is harder for the enemies of the Church to exploit.
The news hounds are sniffing around a story that Pope Francis has telephoned a gay man in France to tell him it doesn’t matter if he’s gay. And a few weeks before that, it was reported that the pope called a rape victim in Argentina to offer his sympathy. The pope’s personal touch is evident in his one-on-one meetings with the faithful, and his activity on the social network site Twitter evidences his personal, vital, and vibrant style.
Pope Francis’s warm, personal, and caring style is a real winner. It is attractive and powerful, but there are some obvious difficulties with such a spontaneous style of communication. Like it or not, Jorge Bergoglio is not only the subway-riding people’s bishop – he is also the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of Peter and the primary definer and defender of the Faith. People listen to what he says, and what he says matters.
Those in the know realize that everything a pope says is not infallible. A pope may say things off the cuff that are ambiguous or partial statements of the truth. A pope may even publish writings as a “private theologian” as Pope Benedict XVI did – clearly stating that he was not writing with the authority of his papal office.
The man in the street is not aware of these subtle distinctions, and neither is your typical journalist. As a result, the words and actions of the pope are often misunderstood. However, there are some journalists who fully understand the power of the Pope’s words, and they will take every ambiguous statement and twist it to support their own agenda. An example is the article on the fictitious phone call to a gay man in France. Cavan Sieczkowski, the Huffington Post scribe, takes the story (which is no more than a rumor) and runs with it, writing:
Siczkowski casts Pope Francis as “a progressive pope” and makes it sound as though his kindly approach to homosexual people is somehow a break from Catholic teaching and a wholesale endorsement of the gay lifestyle… and all of this from a rumor about Pope Francis calling a gay man on the phone.
Pope Francis is being used by unscrupulous journalists to advance their own progressive agenda. His kindly manner, open hearted style, and warm spontaneity are double edged swords. On the one hand a cell phone-using, tweeting pope who embraces all and makes spontaneous, warm-hearted comments wins over the crowds. On the other hand, there are some media people who are using that same authentic simplicity and affection to undermine the fullness of Catholic teaching and to dull the sharp point of Christ’s gospel.
What can be done about it? I suggest that Pope Francis and his communications team focus on actions rather than words. He has shown himself to be a genius at the prophetic gesture, the memorable action, and the powerful posture. The more he smiles, the more he shows genuine Christian joy. The more he embraces the poor, the disabled, and the needy, the more he shows the compassion of Christ. The more he celebrates Mass with reverence and concentration, the more he shows the love of God at the heart of the Catholic faith. The more he lives simply, the more he shows the truth that the poor in spirit are blessed. Pope Francis’s poetic and prophetic actions incarnate the truth of the Catholic faith in a powerful way. And because they are actions, they are not so easily twisted and turned by those who would distort the faith for their own ends.
We live in a visual age in which a picture speaks a thousand words. An image speaks in a way words cannot. The Old Testament prophets spoke powerful words, but they also did powerful works, taking dramatic actions to make their point. Pope Francis’s role as a prophet in our time is highlighted most powerfully by what he does, not by what he says.
This is how he communicates most effectively, and it is to this (along with his verbal teachings) that we should pay close attention.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.