Benedict and Francis

In the past six months, much has been made of the “Francis Effect.” Who is this man who has Catholics — and even the non-religious — of the world abuzz with interest, if not flat-out excitement? And what is it about him that’s creating the stir?

Pope Francis has a way of “grabbing people by the lapels,” said Father John Wauck, an American Opus Dei priest and a communications professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, during a visit to Our Sunday Visitor this month. His “colloquial, straight-talking style” is accessible and easy for the everyday Catholic to understand. And he has a natural style and humility that are appealing, but also help him get his message across.

In that way, Francis’ message becomes a “personal plea” and part of a “personal encounter,” Father Wauck said. “It’s clearly coming from his desire to interact at a personal level.”

Without a doubt, Pope Francis’ personality has made for fascinating headlines, surprising stories and a remarkably pleasant reception from the secular media. And it’s only natural to compare the Argentine pontiff with his predecessor — whose shy nature and careful, solid instruction of the Faith might signal to some a lack of the personality Pope Francis seems to have in droves.

But, Father Wauck said, just because the world has responded to Francis differently doesn’t mean he and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI don’t have much in common. Francis communicates clearly and directly; Benedict communicated clearly and directly. Each, in his own way, is an ardent defender of the Faith.

The difference between the two is that Francis brings his personality in to convey the truth of the Faith, while Benedict “was content to let the words speak for themselves,” he said.

Benedict refrained from mixing his personality with his instruction of the Faith — a characteristic of a natural teacher. Though, like Francis, Benedict had his own distinct personality, he didn’t want to let it distract from the truth, Father Wauck said.

Francis, on the other hand, brings his personality into everything. He uses his emotions and personal experiences to relate to others. He ad-libs and tells anecdotes.

“It’s a naturalness, but it also sends a message,” Father Wauck said.

Both men, too, have an inherent humility, he added. Pope Benedict only affirmed his when he willingly stepped down as pope in February. Francis’ comes across as he goes about his daily business, Father Wauck said. He doesn’t self-promote, rather promotes only the One he is here to serve.

It seems like, Father Wauck said, the Holy Spirit gave Catholics and the Church a “one-two punch” with Pope Benedict’s theory and Pope Francis’ praxis.

Father Wauck also spoke about Pope Francis’ popularity in Rome — starting from those first moments in a rain-saturated St. Peter’s Square before people even knew it was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio who would appear on that balcony.

“People were ready to love the pope before they even knew who he was,” he said. Since then, this “intense and remarkable” response has continued.

In fact, he added, Francis’ popularity is becoming a problem for those who live around the Vatican and are prevented from returning to their normal lives because of the crowds.

As Pope Francis’ pontificate continues, Father Wauck predicted that his example will have a tremendous impact on young clergy. They will see, in Francis, not the larger-than-life John Paul II or the intellectual Benedict, but rather an everyday pastor just trying to convey the Faith through an anecdote or two. 

Gretchen R. Crowe is the editor of OSV Newsweekly.