There are times when covering Pope Francis seems to result in a persistent case of “papal interview whiplash” — and we know that we’re not alone. One of the most popular searches logged on OSV.com is: “The pope said what?” This is part of the challenge, and the fun, of this pontificate.
In a Jan. 19 news conference alone, Pope Francis used the phrases “breed like rabbits” and “kick him where the sun doesn’t shine,” revealing new insights into his colloquial vocabulary. His informal style with reporters has become a trademark of Francis’ pontificate, and it’s part of the reason his “media honeymoon” has lasted as long as it has. There’s a good possibility, though, that the press’ love affair with the pope may be hitting a few speed bumps.
Shortly before Pope Francis wrapped up his weeklong pastoral visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in mid-January, a columnist from a website specializing in covering the Church wrote that she was “devastated” after reading the pope’s comments strongly supporting the teachings of Blessed Pope Paul VI on artificial birth control. “I had hoped for so much more from this man,” she wrote. Similarly The Associated Press reported that the pope’s comments on protecting the family in Manila, which many took to be a denouncement of same-sex marriage, showed “an apparent reversal” of his now infamous and abundantly misinterpreted 2013 statement, “Who am I to judge?” And these are just two examples.
As Pope Francis nears the start of the third year of his pontificate, expect more such statements, especially from members of the secular media who slowly find themselves coming to grips with Pope Francis’ traditional side. The pope’s comments that prove him to be a “loyal son of the Church” rather than a revolutionary bent on changing Church teachings are bound to cause some heartburn. Perhaps, then, this is a good time to reflect on three things worth keeping in mind about Pope Francis:
1) He is a loyal son of the Church — in every way. What baffles liberals and conservatives alike about the Holy Father is that he refuses to be contained in an ideological box. When he deems women’s ordination an impossibility and lauds Humanae Vitae, conservatives cheer and liberals groan. When he writes on ecology and speaks of women needing a larger role in the Church, the pendulum swings the other way. No one approaching the Church from an ideological standpoint will ever be completely comfortable with everything Francis has to say. But should they be? Jesus’ teachings were never comfortable either.
2) He prioritizes opportunities for encounter. For Pope Francis, being able to speak on the same level as “ordinary people” and to interact with them is a priority. Through his colorful language and simple analogies, he is trying to say: “I speak like you, I understand you, I love you.” Not all Catholics will be comfortable with this approach, certainly, but this is his choice. Which leads to the third point.
3) He is, and always will be, simply himself. The truth is that Pope Francis is simply 78-year-old Jorge Bergolio. As he said in an interview with the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in December, upon his election he told himself, “Jorge, don’t change, just keep on being yourself, because to change at your age would be to make a fool of yourself.” Pope Francis, though the vicar of Christ on earth, is a human being only two years into the most challenging of jobs. And so we continue to be grateful for his leadership and service to the Church, and we continue to pray for him on the journey ahead.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor