With new pictures and stories going viral every week, our 76-year-old Holy Father is dominating the conversation on the Internet. But is the Gospel message getting across?
We already know he’s the most influential world leader on Twitter, but a new report shows Pope Francis’ reach on the digital continent goes far beyond that. According to Global Language Monitor’s 14th annual global survey of the English language, “Pope Francis” is the most discussed name on the 1.83 billion person English-language portion of the Internet.
And “name” here is understood fairly broadly, encompassing not only people but also organizations, programs, and even laws. The next five most discussed names are “Obamacare”, “NSA”, “Ed Snowden”, “Kate Middleton”, and “IRS” – and Pope Francis bests them all.
Among the most commonly used words in the English-language portion of the Internet, “@Pontifex” (Pope Francis’ English username on Twitter) comes in at fourth, beating out terms like “drones”, “surveillance”, “deficit”, and “twerking”, and losing out only to “404”, “fail”, and “hashtag”.
Seemingly without even trying, and in spite of a Vatican media team that at times has been known for its comical inadequacies, Pope Francis simply can’t stay out of the news. With new pictures, statements, and stories going viral every week, it’s fully confirmed: Pope Francis is a mega-celebrity of the highest order.
He’s also a mega-celebrity of a different kind of order. While others are famous for lying, twerking, or their supposed good looks, Pope Francis seems to be uber-famous for the best of reasons. He’s the supreme leader of a 1.2 billion member religion, yet he goes out of his way to embrace a man with a disfigured face. He personally calls up an unwed mother and offers to baptize her child. When the world seems to be on the brink of war, he organizes and leads a world day of prayer for peace – and it works.
But should we be surprised?
“Jesus Christ’s Representative”
“It's not at all surprising that Pope Francis is the most talked about name on the Internet,” says Tim Drake, New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. “He is, after all, Jesus Christ's representative, and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its more than one billion worldwide members.”
Drake compares Pope Francis to Jesus. “Some have said that Pope Francis is shaking things up, and this is why he's drawing so much attention. Again, Christ was an unconventional figure. He shook up the establishment of His time, and out of love embraced the lost, the forgotten, the broken, and those who needed healing. Pope Francis, as demonstrated through the many press reports and photos that show him reaching out to those in prison, the handicapped, the ill, and the disfigured, appears to be doing the same. He's not drawing the attention for himself, but to demonstrate Christ's love. Thus, he's being talked about for good reasons.”
“Like Mary, the mother of Christ, Pope Francis continually points to Christ. Therefore, any attention he is getting only serves to give attention to Christ. That is a great thing. Our world needs Christ more than ever.”
Fr. Roger Landry, an expert on the teachings of Pope Bl. John Paul II, also sees Jesus behind Pope Francis’ fame. “I think the fundamental reason has less to do with Pope Francis the man and much more with what, or better Whom, he represents. People are searching for God, hungering for signs of his presence, his mercy, his love, his goodness in the world. Pope Francis lives, acts, speaks and embraces in a way that not only doesn't contradict people's expectations for God but are fully consistent with them. The interest in him is fundamentally positive.”
Andrew Seeley, professor at Thomas Aquinas College and the Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, thinks Pope Francis’ method of pastoring is similar to Jesus’. “From my vantage point, it looks as though Pope Francis wants to shepherd his flock as Our Lord did, not simply as Chief Teacher, but more intimately, through sharing his heart and soul with us.
“As hearing about Our Lord caused many to ask about Him, ‘Who is this man?’, so much of what hear about Pope Francis causes people to wonder about him. Many were content to judge Our Lord based on the reports about Him, but for some, like Nicodemus, the reports led them to seek Him out, to get to know Him more intimately. The interest that reports about Pope Francis has generated are having a similar effect. The social media possibilities today allow for us to get know Francis more intimately than ever. We should take advantage of them and not be content with what is simply reported to us. What we will find, I believe, is a heart aflame with the love for us inspired by Our Lord and His Church.”
“A Great Help for the New Evangelization”
Church historian Fr. C. John McCloskey sees Francis’ popularity as contributing to the work begun by his predecessors. “It is a sign that the world is indeed attracted to the Church and it's new leader. They are at least listening and watching. This is a great help for the New Evangelization that our last three popes have pushed during their pontificates.”
Ronald J. Rychlak, Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, thinks Pope Francis is bringing to light long-standing Church teaching that wasn’t always well-known. “Pope Francis captures the fascination of the public because he has brought some emphasis to aspects of the Catholic faith that are often overlooked by the popular media.The teachings are no different, and Francis is quite orthodox when it comes to traditional Catholic social positions. With a new face and a new voice, however, people are finally seeing and hearing a message that has always been there. That is a very good thing, both for those who are hearing this message for the first time and for those who have a deep understanding of the Catholic faith.”
Msgr. Charles M. Mangan, Director of the Office of the Marian Apostolate Diocese of Sioux Falls, thinks Francis’ message of love is drawing spiritual seekers. "In a rather short time, Pope Francis has caught the attention of millions of persons. His gestures and words have encouraged many to look again at the Gospel of Christ and His Church. The Holy Spirit chose Pope Francis, as He did his Predecessors, to proclaim the message of Jesus. It is not surprising that we 'searchers,' in the midst of these perilous times, find in Pope Francis a much appreciated reassurance that God deeply loves us and cares for us."
Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr., Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of St. Thomas, points out that Pope Francis isn’t simply in the news, but is in the news for positive reasons. “It is not surprising to me in the least that Pope Francis is the most talked about name on the internet. What is particularly noteworthy in the coverage is that it is almost without exception universally positive.”
“Whether it is Pope Francis embracing a child with cerebral palsy at St. Peter's Basilica, kissing a disfigured man or laughing as a child sits in his chair, the images show a very human Pontiff. Anytime a Pope becomes popular owing to his humility, charity and love for the people of God, that is indeed a good thing for the Church.”
“The Real Litmus Test”
Not everyone is convinced Pope Francis is famous for the right reasons, though. Fr. George Rutler is worried some his fame comes from an expectation among liberals he will fundamentally change the Church. “Many uninformed people are using Pope Francis as a sort of Rorschach inkblot test. What they see in him says more about themselves than about him.”
“His recent excommunication of an heretical Australian priest, and recent appointments of solid bishops are indications of his grasp of true reform. Those who have cast the Pope in the image of their own desires, will soon complain that he has not lived up to their expectations: rather like Blessed Pius IX and, in our own day, Blessed John Paul II.”
Writing for The Catholic Thing, Randall Smith, Professor of Theology at the University of St Thomas in Houston, says he likes Pope Francis but is worried his personality might be eclipsing his message in the media. “[A]lthough personally I enjoy Pope Francis, I also have a concern. Not because he says goofy things or does press conferences he probably shouldn’t. […] No, what concerns me about Pope Francis’s current situation is a concern I think he would share if he became aware of the problem. My concern is that, increasingly, Francis is becoming the message. And if I understand Francis correctly, I think he would find that, not only odd, but practically intolerable.”
“Pope Francis isn’t exactly what most people would call ‘media savvy.’ The problem for a man of humility who has no real concern for the media is that he may not understand the degree to which his own personality and style has come to dominate the message. He has become ‘the story.’ It was similar for Pope John Paul II in his early days. But then he wrote Redemptor Hominis and Familiaris Consortio and defended Humanae Vitae with his ‘the theology of the body,’ and things started to change.”
Fr. Landry is tentative about whether Pope Francis’ celebrity is will turn out to be good for the Church. “In and of itself, his celebrity is a great opportunity, but whether it turns out to be a good or bad thing depends on whether people get beyond his celebrity status to ponder his words and example.”
“Many of those who are fascinated by Pope Francis readily say that the reason they ‘love’ him is because they don't think he judges them or is as interested as they believe most leaders of the Church are in getting them and the world to convert on those subjects where popular opinion and Church teaching aren't aligned.”
Fr. Landry thinks this confusion comes from a misreading of Francis. “But even a superficial following of Pope Francis reveals that the fundamental theme of his papacy is mercy. To talk about mercy implies the need for mercy. Pope Francis has called himself a sinner on whom the Lord has looked with mercy.”
“The real litmus test of whether his celebrity turns out to be a good or a bad thing for the Church is whether all of us will recognize that we, too, are sinners under the merciful glance of the Lord and called to come to receive his forgiveness and share it with others. It's not enough for people to like Pope Francis. It's far more important that people follow his Christian example. The Pope is interested not in winning popularity contests, but in saving people in the great field hospital of the Church.”
The following Aleteia Experts contribute to this article:
Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr. is Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of St. Thomas.
Tim Drake is the New Evangelization Coordinator with the Holdingford Area Catholic Community in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota. He is an award-winning journalist, the author of six books on religion and culture, and a former radio host.
Fr. Roger Landry speaks widely on the thought of Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body, apologetics, and on contemporary issues in the Church.
Msgr. Charles M. Mangan is Director of the Office of the Marian Apostolate Diocese of Sioux Falls, the Vicar for Consecrated Life, and the Canonical Adviser to the Most Reverend Paul J. Swain, D.D., the Bishop of Sioux Falls.
Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington DC. His personal website is http://www.frmccloskey.com.
Fr. George Rutler is pastor of the Church of St. Michael and administrator of the Church of the Holy Innocents, both in Manhattan. He has made documentary films in the United States and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books.
Ronald J. Rychlak is the Butler Snow Lecturer and Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
Andrew T. Seeley is a professor at Thomas Aquinas College and the Executive Director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He co-authored 'Declaration Statesmanship: A Course in American Government'.
Randall Smith is holds the Scanlan Chair in Theology at the University of St Thomas in Houston.