An Everyman Pope Shuns the Spotlight

With his humble ways attracting attention from all corners, Pope Francis is a celebrity in the secular world.

Pope Francis waves from a car during his visit to Castel Gandolfo, Italy. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters).
Pope Francis waves from a car during his visit to Castel Gandolfo, Italy. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters).
“The atmosphere was almost neighborly” when he spoke to the crowd in “a more conversational tone,” like a “universal leader.”

These quotes may sound like they describe a politician angling for votes. However, they are actually about the Catholic Church’s newest celebrity: Pope Francis.

But the pope is definitely not a typical celebrity. One of the main reasons is that rather than embracing his fame like a teen starlet, he has downplayed his actions. When choosing his new Popemobile, for example, he followed his advice to priests to use “more humble” vehicles and selected a 2008 Ford Focus. This was no publicity stunt- for Francis it’s just another way to be “Pope Everyman,” standing in solidarity with many poor and middle-class Catholics.

Since his election, the pope has become universally beloved for his simple message of outreach to the poor. His embrace by religious media is not surprising — it’s the job of magazines like America and Commonweal to cover the pope. What is striking, however, is the support for him from secular media; many magazines have written glowing articles about Francis since his papacy began.

This celebrity has continued unabated into the summer. In the United States, writer Stephen Marche gained a lot of attention for his Esquire magazine piece, “It’s Time to Admit: Pope Francis Is Kind Of Awesome.”

In the article, Marche, an atheist, praises the pope for the many small gestures of kindness he has performed thus far in his papacy. These have ranged from simple acts of charity for the poor and mentally challenged to actions that have highlighted Francis’ sense of humor. Marche concludes, “It was one thing to hear Benedict XVI talk about the poor — on a golden throne draped in ermine. It’s quite another to hear it from a guy on the minibus who pays his bills.”

To read a positive article about the pope written by an atheist in a secular U.S. magazine would have been a distinction unthinkable for Benedict XVI. Such is the power of the change Pope Francis has wrought.

The media has also embraced Francis closer to his home. Last week, Vanity Fair Italia named Pope Francis “Man of the Year.” The accompanying article states, “His first one hundred days have already placed him in the category of world leaders who make history … But the revolution continues.”

Pope Francis reportedly wants to avoid creating a “cult of personality” around himself like the one around John Paul II. The pope’s feelings are understandable — it is his rejection of this “cult” that has gotten him supporters like Elton John.

In fact, the pope has outright rejected some aspects of his newfound popularity. Recently, when a life-size statue of him was installed in a Buenos Aires cathedral, he ordered its removal. “Get that thing down, immediately,” he told the priest in charge.

At a certain point, however, what the public does is out of Francis’ hands. They control his image more than he does.

We live in a world where the birth of William and Kate’s baby is awaited with bated breath. This kind of attention in the media is usually reserved only for secular celebrities, but in rare cases a relatable religious figure strikes a chord with the public. Such is the case with Pope Francis — his small acts of kindness and attempts to clean house at the Vatican have overshadowed his role as the spiritual leader of a billion people. God’s representative on Earth is being summed up in lavish statues and photo ops, which has the potential to diminish his work.

However, in most respects, the pope’s celebrity is a good thing. The world press can finally talk about the Church in a positive light instead of dwelling on abuse scandals and corruption. If Pope Francis causes people once critical of the Church to reconsider their views, so much the better.

Publications like Vanity Fair are celebrating a pope whose actions are the complete opposite of vain. There is nothing wrong with that.