It has been one year since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stood from the loggia of Saint Peter’s Basilica where, as the newly-elected pope of the Catholic Church, he asked the crowds gathered in the Square to pray for him.
Since then, nearly everything about Pope Francis – from his impromptu press briefings to the color of his shoes – has become the focus of media attention. Often regarded as a pope of “change,” the secular media in particular has embraced him, all the while showing disdain for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, because of his supposedly cold adherence to Church dogma.
Sean Patrick Lovett is the director of Vatican Radio’s English-language program. Speaking with ZENIT on the anniversary of his election, he shared his thoughts on the pontificate of Pope Francis:
ZENIT: Thinking back to that time, one year ago, what were your initial reactions upon learning that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected to succeed Benedict XVI?
Lovett: I would lie to you if I said that I had expected it. I did not. It was a surprise. Wonder. Excitement. Challenge.
Surprise, because I did not expect it would be Jorge Bergoglio. Excitement, because he represented something new: new continent, new name, new face, new manner. Challenge, because I didn’t know what to expect. When Joseph Ratzinger was announced as Benedict XVI, it was “Oh yes, I know you!” I’d interviewed him. I had spoken to him on various occasions. He’d been the right-hand man to John Paul II for so many years, there were very few things I didn’t know about Joseph Ratzinger, so there was no challenge involved there.
I knew nothing about Bergoglio. I’d never read a word that he’d written. I didn’t know where he stood on the political, spiritual spectrum. I didn’t know what to expect.
ZENIT: Shortly after his election, we saw what has been described as the “Pope Francis Effect”. What do you understand this to be?
Lovett: I’m wary of anything that has the word “effect” suffix to it, because it implies transience. It implies some kind of superficiality, like the word “special” effects. It’s something which is there, then it’s gone. It’s there to distract your attention, in a sense. So, I’m wary about applying that term to any papacy, and to any person. And particularly, to this papacy, and to this person.
Certainly, when I look in Saint Peter’s Square during a Sunday Angelus, or a Wednesday general audience, certainly when I read how the media treats him with such awe and admiration, I’m delighted, I’m thrilled as a Catholic. My chest swells with pride because he’s my pope, and when I travel around the world and people hear where I come from and who I am, and when they pat me on the back and tell me how “cool” my pope is. Of course, it makes me feel good. But, something inside me resents the superficiality of it all. I’m tired of hearing or reading or being told how “cool” it is that he doesn’t wear red shoes, or that he doesn’t live in the papal palace, or that he drives around in a cheap car. I don’t think that’s what it’s all about. I think there’s much more substance there that perhaps we’re missing because some of us are allowing ourselves to become distracted by the effect, and not paying enough attention to the substance.
ZENIT: As you mention there’s lots of awe and admiration toward Pope Francis, oftentimes coming from sources that had been – and continue to be – critical of Pope Benedict, his predecessors, and the Church in general. What is your take on how what Pope Francis has said and done been interpreted?
Lovett: You mean the “love and admiration” sources: the Rolling Stones, and New York Times, and all the rest. It would seem that, when you do read these articles, these reactions, they are just that: they’re simply reactions to something else. The media did not like Pope Benedict. We know that. Everything was wrong about him: his nationality, his accent, his theology, his age, his everything was wrong in the eyes of the media. And so Francis represents the opposite to that.
For a while, I was hearing everybody taking a piece of Francis and justifying their positions. Anything he would say – the conservatives, the liberals, everybody – would take a piece of it and pretend he was their new spokesperson, and he was on their side. That’s a dangerous position to be in also, because when everybody pretends you belong to them, you’re being torn in too many different directions. I don’t think he belongs to anybody: I think he’s his own man. You have to listen to what he’s saying, and when you listen to what he’s saying, you get the point.
A concrete example of that was the famous press conference on the flight back from Rio de Janeiro when he said the now most quotable of all quotes: “Who am I to judge?” And, when he said lots of other things that were picked up and bandied around – and are still being bandied around, and used by people on the left and the right to justify their positions. What he really said was, when confronted with the hot-button issues of morality and others: “I am a faithful son of the Church”.
So people who are looking at him and expecting some kind of doctrinal revolution are going to be very disappointed, and that’s when I fear the “Francis Effect”: because when the “effect” wears off, and they find out that he is a faithful son of the Church — that it’s the demeanor that’s changed, not the doctrine — there are going to be a lot of disappointed people.
ZENIT: Pope Francis is often hailed as the Pope of change, the Pope of reform. How do you respond to this claim?
Lovett: The Catholic Church is not about “change”: the Catholic Church is about continuity. We’ve been around for so long. We’ve been thinking, and reflecting, and meditating, and discussing what we believe for such a long time, we’re not about to effect what the world sees as dramatic change. We continue to reflect, we continue to evolve – and that’s why we’re having a synod on the family later this year. That’s why a questionnaire has been sent out. And that’s why the Pope has instituted these different commissions, and groups of cardinals. It’s because he wants to keep thinking, he wants to keep the discussion open.
We’re living in a very lively moment in the Church right now where we’re not afraid to talk about things, discuss things, and see where we can go with them. Whether that leads to change as the world understands change, moving in a direction from the one we’ve been moving in up until now, I have my doubts.