Has there ever been a pope as popular as Francis?


Yeah, John Paul II was kind of a rock star, but at the moment, papal stock seems to me at an all-time high.

The pontiff is having a very good day today:

  1. He was named TIME’s Man of the Year (oh, wait, they call it “person” now, don’t they?).
  2. An ABC/Washington Post poll found that among Catholics, 85 percent approve of the direction in which he’s leading the Church, while only 7 percent disapprove (so much for that conservative Catholic backlash we keep hearing about).
  3. Even Jezebel, a website that I only know about because Kathryn sends me links to it, shouts “Pope Francis Is the Princess Diana of Popes.” The same site earlier said that “the coolest pope ever” is “basically the Beyoncé of organized religion.” I’m not sure, but I think maybe Diana is even a step up from that. His stock just keeps rising, even among the unlikeliest audiences (you have to have read a few of the Jezebel links Kathryn has sent to fully appreciate what I mean).

I hope no one thinks this demeans him in anyway, but this Bishop of Rome is a public relations genius. Which is kinda what the Church needs these days.

He hasn’t changed a thing, other than perception, but that is huge. He hasn’t changed any doctrines (frankly, I’m not all that sure an individual pope can do that on his own — maybe some of y’all more conversant with canon law can shed light on that), including the kind that make smoke come out of the ears of writers at Jezebel. OK, he busted the Bishop of Bling (who was sort of this pope’s polar opposite, PR-wise). That did something. But mostly, it’s about the perception.

What he’s done is make just about everybody feel better about the Church. Which helps the Church in doing its actual job, which is to be the physical manifestation of Christ in this wicked world — spreading the message of love, healing the sick, helping the poor and outcast. It’s kind of hard to get those messages across when so much of the world is holding its hands over its ears and making loud noises to shut you out.

This pope has, in a startling brief span of time, gotten those people to take their hands from their ears and stop going “AAAUWAUWAUWA!” and start listening, because they like what he’s said so far and are eager to hear what he’ll say next.

Years from now, when the Church is contemplating whether to canonize him (which at this point seems highly likely), this should go on the scoreboard as his first miracle.

13 thoughts on “Has there ever been a pope as popular as Francis?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    As to whether his popularity will continue, I suppose I should take a moment to play the role of the slave who whispers, “Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!

    Jesus had a great run. During the three years starting with the wedding at Cana, when his Mom nagged him into saving the party, his popularity grew, culminating in the triumph as he entered Jerusalem. A week later, he was crucified.

    Of course, by dying, he laid the groundwork for what would be known as Christendom. But he had to have his moment of utter, brutal, excruciating rejection by the world to get there.

    Doing the right thing doesn’t always make you popular, to say the least. But this pope is using popularity to do good, and count me among those who hope he has a long run at the top of the charts. The Church, and the world, need that.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That seems a case to me of taking disbelief, or doubt, to an extreme level. You don’t believe in God? OK, that can be defended. Don’t believe Jesus was divine? OK, I can see your position.

      But not believe that such a person as Yeshua bar-Yosef, a carpenter and itinerant preacher from Nazareth, ever existed? That seems to run counter to everything we do know. That first generation of Christian communities — from which the huge institutions of today derive, which lets us know that sure enough, those early proto-churches that Paul wrote to had to exist — were started by people who knew him, or knew the people who knew him. This occurred within a context in which pretenders to the title of Messiah were pretty common — we knew people LIKE him existed, so there’s very little reason to believe that this particular Messiah-wannabe didn’t exist.

      Who was that historical man, and what did he claim to be, and what did he, personally, believe himself to be, and what WAS he, really? Those are all things a reasonable person might ask, and we have nothing to go by other than these accounts, probably based on oral traditions, written a generation or more after his death by different people who had different reasons for telling the story the way they did — people who were setting out a new belief system rather than writing anything the modern mind would call “history.”

      But to think that all that activity, affecting hundreds and thousands of people in that first century, was based on some guy who didn’t actually exist — that really defies belief…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    I love Francis. He’s tremendous. And I don’t even mind that he’s misunderstood by or misrepresented in the media.

    If fallen-away Catholics, non-Catholics, and/or enemies of the Church are encouraged to come back, consider their faith, or ease up on their attacks because they think that Francis is relaxing some of the rules, that’s great. They’re going to find a Church that’s much more loving and much less threatening than they appeared. Not because Francis changed anything, but because the Church was always that way.

  3. Karen Pearson

    Seems to me that pope John XXIII was one who was very popular. And one that changed the image of the church in the world, at least until his successors pretty much changed it back.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    See, I don’t remember John XXIII. I was a little kid, and a couple of decades away from being Catholic. So I know of him the way I know of, I don’t know, Adlai Stevenson — one of those people I was too young to be aware of, and who didn’t yet appear in the history books when I was in school.

    But from what I HAVE seen about him, I didn’t get the impression that he inspired such exclamation and adulation as Francis has seen in the last few months. Giddy comparisons to Diana, and Beyonce, for instance. Was he called “the coolest pope ever” by outlets normally hostile to church doctrine? Did anyone say, “Pope John Is Pretty Rad?”

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Another way Jezebel has described him: “Pope Francis, the hippest, most bro’d down Pope since Pope Brad the Chill (not a real pope)…” I kinda liked that. Especially the part where it’s assumed that you’re extremely cool if your name is Brad.

    If Ford Prefect were writing an entry on this pope for the Hitchhikers’ Guide, he’d call him “a really hoopy frood…”

  6. bud

    It’s kind of hard to get those messages across when so much of the world is holding its hands over its ears and making loud noises to shut you out.

    Wow. What a ridiculous thing to say. I mean, Wow. The problem with the Catholic Church isn’t that people are trying to shut out it’s message. Rather their biggest problem is the messages they are focusing on are so incredibly counter-productive. They just don’t get it that birth control is important, no, essential to humanity’s attempt to move forward into a sustainable future that isn’t crushed with masses of people that the earth cannot feed. So far the new Pope has stayed away from this incendiary issue but eventually he will need to say whether the Church is ok with modern birth control or it will continue with the reactionary and dangerous policies of the past. Let’s hope they can address this crucial issue in a way that will move mankind forward into a bright, sustainable future. Otherwise blight, famine and deprivation will permeate the earth.


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