Shortly before his abdication, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI delivered an address to the clergy of the diocese of Rome. He reflected on his experiences as an expert at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and on that Council’s effects on the life of the Church. He spoke mysteriously of a contrast between the Council of the Fathers, meaning the proceedings that actually took place around the Pope in the Vatican, and what he called, a ‘virtual Council’, or a ‘Council of the media’. According to Pope Benedict, the real Council was firmly rooted in Catholic doctrine and aimed at renewing the Faith, while the ‘virtual Council’ as presented to the world through the media had a completely different, political, objective. Pope Benedict explained: "this Council [the ‘virtual’ one] created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality. Seminaries closed, convents closed, the liturgy was trivialised." Pope Benedict even lamented that this ‘virtual Council’ was stronger than the official Council itself.
Whether or not we agree with this interpretation of the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council, we must acknowledge that the media in the world today exerts a formidable power over the information that ultimately determines how we think and live. During the last month we have lived through a ‘Conclave of the media’, in which millions of words were written and spoken in speculation about what sort of man was needed as pope, and who was likely to be elected. In the event, ninety nine and a half per cent of the prophesying turned out to be wrong. Now there is the danger of a ‘virtual Papacy’, in which every utterance and gesture of a new pope is analysed and evaluated, and all sorts of weird and wonderful predictions are made about what this new pontificate will mean.
Would it be going too far to talk about a dictatorship of the media? It sometimes seems that the media insists on setting the agenda for almost every aspect of human life. It creates new messiahs and it judges who are the monsters in our society, depending on how many boxes the chosen public figures tick on the agenda that happens to be current for the moment. Those granted messiah status totter on a wobbly pedestal because nothing sells papers or pushes up ratings better than yesterday’s messiah being exposed as a mere mortal with human failings.
Soon after the election of Pope Francis, the Oratory telephone exchange was crackling with calls from the press. All of the journalists who telephoned seemed to ask the same question: "How will the new pope compare with the old one?" How could one possibly answer? To say it was refreshing to have a pope from the new world and to suggest that we could surely expect a different style of pontificate might look, in print, like a vulgar criticism of Pope Benedict, whose deep humility, selflessness and penetrating insight will be esteemed by all decent men and women for centuries to come. Most of us probably hope that a new pontificate will be marked by continuity with Pope Benedict’s project to re-establish a sense of Catholic identity among the faithful and to restore the mystery that makes us active participants at the most profound level in the Church’s liturgy. To say so much to the press, however, would sound presumptuous, as if we were telling the new Supreme Pontiff how to do his job.
In a sense, comparing popes with their immediate predecessors is fishing for red herrings. Each Pope should be seen primarily as a successor of St Peter rather than as a replacement of any previous tenant of the papal digs in the Vatican. The fact that our new pope even declined to take the name of any preceding Supreme Pontiff helps to emphasise this. A ‘Celestine VI’ or a ‘Julius IV’ would have stimulated a frenzy of fascinating interpretation. The beautiful choice of ‘Francis’, however, is a name that carries no historical baggage as far as the Petrine office is concerned. It is taken from a saint who is loved, if often misunderstood, even beyond the bounds of Christendom. If there are any clues to how the current pontificate might proceed then perhaps they should be sought in a life of the Poverello from Umbria. An excellent one is Francis of Assisi, A New Biography. Written by the Dominican scholar Augustine Thompson, it was read recently from the pulpit in the Oratory refectory during supper. It presents an altogether more robust and complex figure than the fey folk-singing Francis concocted in the psychedelic imagination of the late 1960s.
Another question the journalists have been asking is: "Father, what do you think about the election of this particular archbishop from Argentina to the papacy?" Apart from admitting that it is a novel experience (by no means a disagreeable one) for an Oratorian to find that his immediate religious superior is a Jesuit, the Provost was at a loss for words, not having heard much about Cardinal Bergoglio before his appearance on the balcony. For want of a more original response he was grateful to have at hand a phrase from the Swiss entertainer Hans Küng, who when asked earlier in the day for his view on the election result had said: "It was a very happy surprise. I’m extremely delighted."
Reading the newspapers since the election of our new Pope, pious Catholics will find material that fills them with hope and joy and speculations that might give anyone sane a stroke if they happened to be true. We should not allow what we see in the press or on the Internet to disturb our serenity and distract us from prayer. That would be playing into the hands of the devil, who dreads and despises the prayers of the faithful (any timidity one might have about mentioning the devil in these modern times, by the way, has been dissolved by the fact that Pope Francis mentioned that enemy of God and man at least twice, in startlingly direct terms, in sermons on the first days after the election).
So please, do not let your attitude to the Pope be determined by the media. In this age of lightning-speed communication rumours and blatant fabrications on the Internet regularly turn up as ‘information’ in mainstream news sources. And besides, the categories used by secular journalists to judge achievement and failure in the Church are bound to be very different from the spiritual and supernatural considerations that matter to a believer. St Peter, St Paul and St Francis would all be considered blundering gaffe-merchants by the standards of what is deemed politically correct today.
Whatever personal feelings – euphoric, neutral or negative – an individual might experience towards the person of any particular pope are neither here nor there as far as being a good Catholic is concerned. There is, however, a very definite and proper Catholic response to the election of a new Pope. We receive the Successor of St Peter into our hearts with love, and we support him with our loyalty and with our prayers. Charity, or love, here does not mean a fickle sentiment that waxes and wanes depending on whether we are delighted with a pope’s thundering denunciation of gambling one day and then up-in-arms about his reluctance to be carried on the sedia gestatoria the next. Love in this context is something far more constant and practical. It means praying for the Pope every day, so that God’s grace works through his gifts and his limitations for the building up of the Church. It also means that, if ever we speak of the Supreme Pontiff, it is always with the respect that is due to the awe-inspiring dignity of his office.
As Christians, of course, we owe charity to all our fellow men in virtue of the image of God that is intrinsic to every human soul. We also owe a special charity to the Pope. He is the visible head on earth of the Mystical Body of which we are members. He bears an unimaginably heavy burden. Our sacrifices, our almsgiving and our growth in Divine Charity contribute to the strength and health of the whole Church. They help the Pope in his mission of building the Kingdom of God on earth, as well as securing better-appointed accommodation for ourselves in Heaven.
Finally, a word of advice from a former journalist: don’t believe too much of what you read in the press.