JLaw, Brad Pitt, and Francis – The Power of a Celebrity Pope

by The Groundskeeper

Pope Francis Snow AngelMake no mistake – we’re down the rabbit hole. Seeing mainstream media treat Pope Francis as the same sort of front-cover sales lift as Jennifer Lawrence and Brad Pitt is a welcome, if bizarro-world, sensation for Catholics who grew up in the shadow of the sex abuse scandals and criticism of Church activity in the public square. When the spiritual leader formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio makes global breaking news by stating for the record that he is not a Marxist. it is clear that we’re in unprecedented territory (not to mention BuzzFeed, that noted arbiter of cultural newsworthiness, and its “19 Best Pope Francis Moments of 2013“). 

Of course, Pope John Paul II had a similar (if more politically-charged) cultural impact in the early 1980s, also being named Man/”Person” of the Year by the same red-banded periodical that recognized Pope Francis last week. The difference with Pope Francis is that the tastemakers on cable news, magazines, and in politics are sensing a leader of the Church who is muy sympatico to their desired direction for the Catholic Church.

TIME’s candidate for correction of the year is a distillation of this mindset in a nutshell. Not to be outdone, The New Yorker also put Pope Francis on its cover, accompanied by a 10,000+ word examination of the “radical” first year of Pope Francis, written by James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist who wastes no time pulling the former-seminarian card when putting his own spin on the Francis Effect.

He seemed to reverse long-set Catholic attitudes, if not actual doctrines, when he told Spadaro, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”

Among the far reaches of ultra-orthodoxy, there may be a rare viral strain of heresy that discounts the presence of God’s grace in the life of atheists, Mormons, Catholics who attend Mass in the vernacular, or others of ill repute. But it requires a stretch of the imagination that having a dogmatic certainty of God’s presence for all, regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not, is in any way a dramatic break from his immediate predecessors.

This isn’t meant to downplay the differences in style, and to an extent the focus of substance (it is hard to imagine Francis writing about the “dictatorship of relativism” as eloquently or frequently as Benedict). Yet Carroll, like so many writers in the mainstream press, expresses the unmistakable yearning that the less formal, more redemptive focus of Francis means a lessening of the yoke when it comes to matters of faith and morals: When Francis says we cannot let the Church be only a non-governmental organization, Carroll rejoins

“The Church is an N.G.O.—the largest in the world. Roman Catholicism is the only worldwide institution that crosses boundaries of north and south, east and west, affluence and abject poverty. Given that reach, how can the human family thrive without a reformed, critically minded, ethically responsible Catholic Church? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human longing for transcendence?”

To those who have been fans of the papacy before it went mainstream, the answer is obvious. Only with an “explicitly Christian message of a loving merciful God” does the mission and role of the Catholic Church make sense. Neutering the Church to a social service organization with simple clothes is decidedly not what Francis’ first eight months on the job have been about.

When the Sistine Chapel was renovated, onlookers were taken aback by the vivid, almost garish hues of the ceiling. They had gotten so used to seeing Michelangelo’s masterpieces as they appeared to them in their day, with the accumulated years of candles, incense, and plain old dirt. When the centuries of varnish had been stripped away, the underlying paintings were shocking – but they brought us closer to the true intent and meaning underneath.

For those of us tempted to be the elder brother of the parable of the prodigal son – we have been doing this all along, and only now does the Christian message get glowing write-ups in TIME and the Nightly News? – the Chesterton quote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” rings true. The Catholic faith has potentially never had so large a stage or so powerful a messenger as the former Cardinal of Buenos Aires. For so many who have found the 2,000 years of tradition and teaching difficult and left it aside, his simple, humble, solidarity-driven ethos is opening doors that many had thought forever closed.

The College of Cardinals is responsible for listening to the guiding of the Spirit to choose a leader best suited to guide the Church in the present time. It appears, nine months after Pope Francis first appeared on the loggia, they were tuned in to the right frequency.