Just in case you may have been on some other Catholic planet the last 24 hours or so and you weren’t yet aware of the news, Pope Francis was named Time Magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year on Wednesday. Time officially said that part of the reason that they chose the Holy Father was because they believe that he has managed, in a very short time (he has only been pope since March) to change the public perception of the Church. There seems little question that Francis has done this, but it wasn’t because he is saying anything different than his two most previous predecessors about Church teaching, but instead it is the way Francis seems to project himself. He listens to people, and when he must clearly state the Church’s teaching, as he often does in his daily homilies, does so with great love and charity.
It has to be said with no small amount of clarity that today’s secular news media will never completely understand, and often has a difficult time accurately reporting, the affairs of the Catholic Church. That is true of media outlets on the apparent Left of the political spectrum, such as The New Republic, The New York Times, or Time itself, as well as media outlets viewed as being on the political Right, such as Fox News, The Washington Times, or a certain popular radio talk show host. The secular press doesn’t quite seem to get it right because the American press of today is a partisan press. That isn’t at all new in the American historical context because the press has been partisan in one direction or the other since the earliest days of the American experience, and the advent of cable and satellite television, the internet, and social media has simply restored an old American historical trend of a highly politicized press. The problem with that highly politicized news media reporting on anything to do with the Catholic Church is that Holy Mother Church, and those who have been chosen to lead her, cannot be placed in some kind of box with a political label on it. The primary interest of the Church is the Gospel, and spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ is Pope Francis’ primary mission in this world. Being the visible head of the Church on earth means being an image of Christ to a hurting world. The Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, and spreading the Gospel in its fullness is going to make a whole lot of people of any and all persuasions very uneasy indeed.
The secular press has certainly painted a picture of Francis that is either (depending on the outlet in question and the reporters involved) an image largely of their own creation of the Pope they either wish he was or hope he will be-such as his interview with La Repubblica in Italy that both the Vatican and the paper now acknowledge misreported what the Pope actually said-or of the Pope they think he is and do not like, as Fox News and the aforementioned radio host have portrayed Pope Francis. The Gospel will cause people to misunderstand you and put labels on you.
The beautiful thing about our present Holy Father is that he seems to fully understand that this could happen to him and likely will whenever he deals so openly with the secular press as to decide not to speak through an official filter. He does not seem to care. He seems very much aware of how some people may react when it is revealed that he has made a telephone call to a teenager to offer encouragement out of the blue, or that he rang up a woman pregnant with the child of a married man who had wanted her to get an abortion to encourage her to raise her child and offering to baptize it. What about when he met a group of young people and made a “selfie” picture with them? The Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman Church doesn’t do selfies, does he? Apparently he does. The Vicar of Christ visits slums in Rio de Janeiro and tells the people there that he is sorry that he cannot have coffee in each of their homes. Jesus healed lepers, and Francis kisses them. What the world sees in this is whatever the world will see, but what Pope Francis is projecting as best he can is the image of Christ, and he is trying to see Christ in every soul.
Upon the news that Pope Francis had been named Time Person of the Year, Father Frederico Lombardi, SJ, who acts as the papal press secretary, said:
“If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the Pope is content.”
“If this nomination as ‘Person of the Year’ means that many have understood this message, at least implicitly, he will certainly be glad.”
We have a Pontiff who sees that the Church cannot evangelize a hurting world in desperate need of the message of Christ that the Church exists to bring by building a spiritual wall around ourselves in isolation from the very world that needs saving. This does not mean that faithful Catholics and their leaders should live and act as those who are “of this world,” indeed the Pope’s message is precisely the opposite of that. He is calling us to prayer, simplicity of life, and a concern for the poor, the vulnerable, and those on the margins of society. He is showing that his concern and ours should be for the souls of the spiritually ill, and the Church is a field hospital for all such people. If reaching out to the media to risk being misquoted, misunderstood, and misinterpreted can bring even one hurting soul back to the barque of the Church, clearly this Pope wants to seize on that opportunity.
If making the front cover of Time as Person of the Year might mean that some lost sheep will finally hear the voice of the Shepherd, then Pope Francis is happy to oblige. After all, it would be one more soul home for Christmas.