Francis is about authentic Christianity, not PR stunts

Is Francis' papacy a grand PR exercise? Simon Smart comments on the Pope's startling popularity.

Pope Francis isn't trying to bring the Catholic Church into the 21st century; he's trying to take it back to the time of Jesus by refocusing it on the grace of the gospels, writes Simon Smart.

Since his election to the papacy in March 2013, the former janitor, nightclub bouncer and literature teacher Jorge Mario Bergoglio has become famous for sometimes surprising public acts of benevolence signifying where he thinks the church's energies and focus ought to be, and it has won him supporters across the globe.

An astonishingly popular media figure, TIME Magazine's person of the year in 2013 has continued to woo even harsh critics of the faith with his emphasis on the healing mission of the church: the church as comforter of those in need.

This week agencies around the world have been reporting the burial of a homeless man within the Vatican walls in a prestigious cemetery normally reserved for princes, senior German clerics and artists. This has come on the back of Pope Francis arranging for showers to be installed in toilets near St Peter's Square where the homeless can now freshen up and also be given a shave by one of a team of volunteer barbers. In December, to celebrate his own birthday, the Pope organised for dozens of sleeping bags to be distributed to those living on the streets of Rome. 

But does the Francis phenomenon merely represent a grand PR exercise for a church in desperate need of some good press?

Some critics might think so. Heaven knows the church needed him. This Pope came along at a time when sex abuse scandals in Ireland, North America and Australia had understandably caused many to turn away, and the gulf between the increasingly secular West and the church had never been greater.

But an examination of Francis's life and work show him to be about more than appearances. He has for decades been the advocate of those without a voice, the champion of the disadvantaged, aligning himself with and reaching out to those on the fringes of society. He is the Pope who continues to shun the trappings of office, straining against the allure of power and privilege in the manner that, it's fair to say, not all church leaders have been able to do. He promotes a “poor church for the poor” – a church that exists for the sake of others rather than itself. A critic of globalisation and unregulated markets, Francis is regarded as a spokesperson for social justice who is willing to challenge and offend the powerful in order to speak the truth.

Francis is easy to like. A priest who loves tango, from the very beginning he joined the Jesuits so he could be not cloistered in a Basilica, but out among the neighbourhoods and the common people. His adoption of the name Francis (after the humble Saint Francis of Assisi) was, according to Vatican commentator John Allen, incredibly bold: “[Francis] is this iconic figure in the Catholic imagination that awakens images of the antithesis of the institutional church.”

Pope Francis would require real action to live up to the name. The original Francis is credited with saying, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary use words.” It is an important sentiment for a church that has been known for too much talk – especially of a condemning kind – and not enough action.

No-one could accuse the modern day Francis of not walking the walk, and as Pope he has made an art form of public displays of the kind of activity he expects his church to follow. In November 2013, images of Francis embracing and kissing a horribly disfigured man, Vinicio Riva, in St Peter's Square, were shown all over the world. He made headlines in 2013 and again in 2014 when, in the traditional re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Francis included women – the first Pope to do so – and also Muslims in the ceremony.

Biographer Austen Ivereigh locates the source of Francis' popularity firmly in his Christ-likeness:

… his authenticity amid the phoniness, his simplicity in a world of materialism, his spontaneity among the stuffed cassocks, his preference for the poor in a world vying to be rich. He was humble in a world of celebrity, a sinner in a world of self-justification, a leper kisser in a world obsessed with beauty.

The stories of Francis's kindness are legion and Ivereigh says these flow directly from the Pope's identification with the Christ of the gospels. As such, rather than mere superficial posturing, Francis's public actions represent deeply symbolic acts that illustrate and enact something at the core of authentic Christianity.

Francis is not creating something new for the church of the 21st century but recalling and breathing life into a key aspect of what the faith has always been about. Since the beginning, Christianity has been a message of grace that calls its followers to live in thankful response – loving God and neighbour. This is a lived-out faith that requires activism and care, especially for the needy. In its best moments, Christianity “with its sleeves rolled up” has, in this regard, been deeply appealing. It was a critical factor in the church growing so quickly in the early centuries after its birth. It remains a vital area in which the church makes a massive contribution to the common good.

Francis understands that this kind of action is not only fundamental to the faith but also attractive to those beyond its walls. “We need to go out to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters,” he said at a Mass in St Peter's Basilica early in his tenure. It remains to be seen whether this Pope, as compelling a figure as he is, can communicate the love of Jesus in such a manner that the church can find a new audience among a younger generation that have largely disengaged.

Sex abuse scandals and a public perception of an institution more interested in protecting its privileged position than caring for people has done enormous damage to the reputation of the church, and not only the Catholic Church. If it is to recover, the kind of leadership, posture and faithful action displayed by this humble Argentine Pope will be a good place to start.

Simon Smart is director of the Centre for Public Christianity. He is the co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, and Rachel Woodlock of For God's Sake: An Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim Debate Religion.

This article first appeared at The Drum.