THE BLOG

The Francis Effect: Hamming Up the Holy See With Papal Wit And Holy Writ

11/05/2015 09:40 BST | Updated 09/05/2016 10:59 BST

Before the heartening guarantee of being eventually raised from the dead for good behaviour, indubitably not a few among today's professed Catholics are powered to piety out of fear of some worse, inglorious fate, whether rational or no - perhaps in the hopes of securing for themselves a form of 'everlasting life insurance' policy. However, after fifteen years living in Italy not far from Mons Vaticanus, my own sense is that many continue to see themselves within a greater narrative which they still consider (for better or for worse) to be 'bigger than they are'. It is related in various conflicting -though no less compelling- biographies recounting the life and misadventures of an ancient Jew of Roman Palestine and it culminates in his Passion, Death and alleged Resurrection. By so doing, it evokes in believers an overriding affinity with this historical personage. At its most benign it is a form of 'family relationship' with that Christ and his early followers which traverses centuries, commencing with the Incarnation and with what is held to be a species of divine big bang within chronological time, here represented in the belief that, apparently prompted by love, Creator became creature through a personal intervention in our human story.

When considering the succession of pontiffs who, for two thousand years, were purportedly charged with preserving those teachings and interpreting that message, we might wonder at which point Catholics began to invest more than a very cursory, subjective concern in whether or not the personal character of a pope was, say, charming or boring. Why, indeed, did they suddenly start caring who, exactly, held the office ? Though assuredly no less prey to the disreputable ambitions of careerist-papabili, the Apostolic Succession model was ideally served up as being more or less hazard-free, at least in terms of preserving the function of the Bishop of Rome as a thing transcending or rather 'going beyond' the man himself. In this respect it was meant to render the incumbent almost irrelevant or at least no more important to any public address he might have given as, say, a postman is to the letter he delivers - the Word of that message having been already 'spoken for all time' through the Eternal Logos.

In the wake of the tumultuous hype following Benedict XVI's abdication and with the subsequent media explosion accompanying the election of his successor, few church watchers will deny that the papacy will never be the same again. What later earned Bergoglio the bonny appellation of 'Pope Frank' was that candour which many deemed to be among his most endearing qualities. His string of spontaneous dicta included a playful threat to punch anyone who insulted his mother. It was followed by a glib admission on his part that he was once torn, upon being offered a bribe as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, between the urge to either play ignorant or else kick his interlocutor 'where the sun doesn't shine'. From a man who reportedly worked during his youth as a bouncer in a night club, the ensuing bar talk to young couples -an admonition against (breeding) 'like rabbits'- hit cyberspace as a refreshing change from that standard, indecipherably-coded language respecting matters sexual to which we had become accustomed. Indeed Pope Frank was probably never as frank as he was during his memorable pre-Christmas exhortation to senior prelates of the Roman Curia, many of whom are cardinals well on in their years, to be vigilant against the dangers of 'spiritual Alzheimers', in which he went on to reprimand them for having funereal faces. At the time I remember privately reflecting upon whether His Holiness had, in fact, 'said it all' or if some wiggle room yet remained to him to add : 'Be consoled, dear brothers - for at no time did I actually say that I really consider you all to be a bunch of old farts.'

Truism or no, our 'Internet Age' has made a significant contribution to restyling any former expression of what was always peddled as the Petrine ministry. Certainly news of unchecked power-mongering in recent years, helped on by Vatileaks, has forced a re-examination of that earlier bill of fare. It adds no modest clout in advancing the position that the Church should be no different from any other multinational in selling itself to potential users, albeit with a marketing strategy more in sync with its 'evangelizing mandate'.

Finally. whether as populist-opportunist or pastor bonis, what remains clear to us is that Francis already grasped this development early on in his pontificate when few would have argued with the idea that Jesus can be far more effectively sold today through web clicks and profile page ratings - a notion which aptly coincides with the current requirement to package a more hip holiness for mass consumption.