“Papolatry” or Genuine Devotion?

Pope Francis greets a child after celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Square. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
Pope Francis greets a child after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
The other day while we were eating together, one of the sisters in my community began a conversation regarding the exponential growth in the number of people attending papal functions in Rome since the election of Pope Francis. She expressed her surprise and disappointment that the same amount of people did not turn out during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Those who come to Rome to see the new pope, she said, are motivated by what is “unessential” — his personality, the hope that he will bless and kiss their babies or comfort those with disabilities — rather than by the desire to hear the Word of God and strengthen their lives as disciples of Christ.

This discussion prompted me to reflect: To what can we attribute the reaction of so many — Catholic and non-Catholic — to Pope Francis? Can we categorize this reaction as “papolatry,” as one journalist called it?

Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis come from two very different cultures, and have two very different personalities. Pope Benedict came from a verbal culture; Pope Francis from a very visual and charismatic culture. Pope Benedict was rooted in and approached his audiences in a very academic way; Pope Francis in a very friendly, hands-on pastoral way. Pope Benedict predominantly proclaimed the Gospel through written and spoken words, which will continue to inspire many; Pope Francis has inspired us through the way he acts. Because of the cultural revolution that the world has undergone in the past 20 years, the average person is better able to understand Pope Francis because they lack the philosophical and theological background necessary to appreciate Pope Benedict’s beautiful writings, speeches and homilies.

Images inspire

We have seen Pope Francis showing tenderness over and over again. People flock to him because he is not afraid to be tender with others.

We live in a visual world saturated with images. Jesus himself often used images when he taught — lilies of the field, a women looking for a coin, and so on. For thousands of years, Christianity has used images in order to inspire — stained glass windows, Church architecture, crucifixes, iconography, etc. Christianity has always been a very image-oriented faith. Why? Because images can communicate directly to the heart.

Perhaps this is the core of the reaction to Pope Francis. We are touched when we see images of him kissing a baby, comforting a handicapped child, washing the feet of juveniles on Holy Thursday, spending a lot of time in an unprotected vehicle passing through the crowds who come to see him in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis’ pastoral approach came through in his first homily: “Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be ‘protectors,’ we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

“Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”

That’s a first for me — hearing a pope tell us not to be afraid of tenderness and using the image of St. Joseph to illustrate tenderness? Since that first homily, we have seen Pope Francis showing tenderness over and over again. People flock to him because he is not afraid to be tender with others.

Jean Vanier, a Canadian Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, spoke about tenderness last year in a speech he gave at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He recounted a conversation he had with a psychiatrist regarding human maturity. According to this psychiatrist, the sign of human maturity is tenderness. Vanier defined tenderness as “when our body, our spirit, and our soul are unified.” Tenderness is “being comfortable with one’s own body. Tenderness is to have assumed one’s sexuality, not being afraid of it, not being afraid of relationships with others … Tenderness is never doing evil to another. Tenderness is a quality of listening, of touching. It gives security; it says to another, ‘you are important.’”

Pope Francis’ words about, and his countless manifestations of, tenderness, coming directly on the heels of a more subtle example of tenderness on the part of Joseph Ratzinger pardoning his butler, tell me that he believes that the antidote to what often ails us is not only teachings on morality, but also examples of the highest form of morality — tenderness. These examples of tenderness need no translation. They are accessible in any language, culture or faith tradition. Those flocking to be in Pope Francis’ presence are seeking what is essential. They are not only seeking it, they are finding it as well.