A new messenger: Pope’s press-friendly style stuns

This past September in Rome, leaders of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications were kicking off a high-level assembly when, all of a sudden, smartphones began buzzing and vibrating with alerts across the room.

On-hand were bishops, archbishops and cardinals, among others. But what made the scene noteworthy was not simply who they were, but also what they didn’t know. An in-depth interview with Pope Francis, published by Jesuit journals around the world, was making headline news. And most of the Church’s highest-ranking communications officials knew nothing about it.

Open, honest

Throughout the past year, Pope Francis has forged a new way of being pope, and part of this pontifical style has been to give freewheeling interviews to the press.

“This is a genre to which we were not accustomed,” the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said in October when asked by reporters about the papal interviews. He was alluding understatedly to the fact that Catholics and others are used to hearing a pope speak in more authoritative forms such as papal encyclicals and prepared homilies or addresses.

If asked to recall something this pope has said, most people would probably cite a remark from an interview with him or a news conference.

For example, there was the now-famous “Who am I to judge” comment in relation to gays who seek a closer relationship to God — made on July 28 aboard a plane returning to Rome from the World Youth Day celebration in Rio de Janeiro. Pope Francis unexpectedly fielded questions from the press pool for nearly an hour and a half.

There was the “I am a sinner” reply to the opening question by the Jesuit interviewer about the man elected pope one year ago: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” This was the interview that caught the Pontifical Council for Social Communications off guard on Sept. 19. It arguably made the biggest splash of all, partly because Francis personally reviewed and approved all of the 12,000 published words.

Next was an interview conducted by an atheist editor and published Oct. 1 in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. Pope Francis purportedly said, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense,” although the writer admitted later to loosely reconstructing all of the interview comments from memory (he neither took notes nor recorded the conversation).

In December, the pope gave an interview to another Italian newspaper, La Stampa. Answering accusations in some quarters that he is a Marxist, Pope Francis said: “The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

All that and more have come from a pope who — en route to Rio — explained in a brief exchange with reporters, “It’s true I don’t give interviews. I don’t know why. I just can’t. It’s tiresome. But I enjoy your company.”

Getting his message out

The interview format, chosen frequently by Pope Francis to spread his message, has its advantages as well as disadvantages, according to Church analysts including reporters who cover him.

For one thing, interviews get attention. In an increasingly secular world (in the West, at least), it’s hard to dismiss the value of a Roman pontiff speaking to the unwashed global masses.

The interview strategy, from that perspective, is a piece of the New Evangelization embraced by Pope Francis and his predecessors since Vatican II.

“When the pope speaks in an untraditional way, the world takes heed, and the novel charm of an informal papal voice opens up possibilities for engaging audiences ordinarily unreceptive to Vatican pronouncements,” wrote Francis X. Rocca, of Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau, after the stunning interview in the Jesuit journals appeared.

“Yet, as the pope must know, this approach also poses serious risks,” Rocca also wrote. “During informal conversation, a speaker is apt to think out loud, omit important qualifications to categorical statements, take premises for granted, and overlook how a particular formulation might lend itself to misinterpretation, innocent or otherwise.”

Often misconstrued

An example often cited is the Jesuit interview that ran in outlets including America magazine.

The pope suggested on that occasion that some people in the Church are “obsessed” with a limited array of moral doctrines. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said, adding, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

His point seemed to be that the Church should make a broader and bolder proclamation of the Gospel rather than take an issue-oriented approach to social concerns. But many in the general public took his comments to mean the Church was muting its pro-life witness.

The day after publication of that interview, Pope Francis spoke to a group of Catholic gynecologists and said, “Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.” This prepared address drew far less notice than the interview released the previous day.

What’s clear enough is that Vatican officials have learned a lesson or two about the interview genre. They hastily posted the La Repubblica interview on the Holy See’s website before having to take it down six weeks later after the trustworthiness of the account was called into serious question.

What’s even clearer is that Pope Francis has struck up a fresh and friendly conversation with the world. That would have been harder to pull off if he were just sticking with encyclical letters, apostolic exhortations and other magisterial favorites.

William Bole writes from Massachusetts.

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