I'm a Pope fan-boy
In a potentially career threatening move, News Editor Paul Sims gets something off his chest
I have a confession to make: I think I might be a fan of the Pope. Not what you’d expect to read from the News Editor of a godless magazine but, watching the coverage of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the top job, I couldn’t help thinking that I actually quite like the guy.
Because really, what’s not to like? From the moment he stepped on to the Vatican balcony on the evening of 13 March, the new Pope Francis has seemed unusually down to earth for a Pontiff, at least in the eyes of this unseasoned observer. Addressing the adoring crowd for the first time, the first Latin American Pope chose to open with a gag, saying that the Cardinals had gone “almost to the end of the world” to find a new leader. Sure, he’s probably better off sticking with the Papacy than packing it all in for stand-up, but it’s still not the kind of quip you expect to hear at the culmination of the Conclave.
Read his backstory, though, and this humble air seems entirely fitting. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio eschewed many of the trappings of his office, declining the chance to live in the opulent Archbishop’s resident and opting to live instead in a small flat where he cooked his own meals and took public transport around the city.
It’s a trend he appears to be continuing as Pope. On the day after his election, he travelled back from one of his first public engagements aboard a minibus alongside his fellow cardinals, and so far he’s chosen to continue living in a simple Vatican apartment, rather than the palatial residence usually occupied by God’s representative on Earth. Unlike his predecessor Benedict XVI, who was hailed in the fashion world for realising the sartorial potential of the role, Bergolglio has chosen to wear simple white robes, and even opted against wearing those famous red Prada shoes.
It’s a statement underlined by his choice of name. The 13th-century Italian saint Francis of Assisi supposedly gave up a life of privilege to live among and aid the poor, and Pope Francis has spoken of his desire to lead a Catholic Church that follows this example, telling journalists that he would like a Church “that is poor, and for the poor”. While I may be an atheist, I find it hard not to welcome this message. I’m not someone who sees the end of religion as either achievable or desirable, so having a Catholic Church out there which practises what it preaches doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
But then again, maybe I’ve just been sucked in by the PR. As the Conclave got under way I noticed lots of atheists complaining about the extended media coverage, but I just couldn’t get enough of it. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but how could I not be fascinated by watching a 2,000-year-old ritual, one of the great pieces of global theatre, play out before my eyes on TV?
On the evening when the white smoke finally went up the Vatican chimney, I had to keep running between my kitchen and my living room to make sure that I didn’t miss the big reveal. Who would it be? Where would he be from? I’m an unwavering atheist from a pretty standard default Church of England background, but I couldn’t wait to find out whom that room full of old, celibate men had chosen as their new leader. It was the same a few days later when Pope Francis met Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for lunch. I heard a fellow atheist complain that the news was giving coverage to two old men having a meeting, but I loved it. Two Popes having lunch! That’s never happened before! It was history, and no institution does history quite like the Catholic Church.
As I say, it’s cracking PR, and I bought it. With all this media coverage, it’s little wonder the cardinals chose to follow Benedict’s retirement by selecting another 70-something. Give it a few years and this Pope can retire too, meaning the Church can do the whole thing over again. Why wait decades for this kind of marketing opportunity?
But for now, Pope Francis is in the hot seat, and I can’t help being a bit of a fan. Not that I’m without reservations. The Pope is still a Catholic, bears are still doing the necessaries among the trees, and there’s little that distinguishes Francis from his predecessor on the usual issues, such as gay rights, contraception and abortion. Indeed, if it’s not too presumptuous, I’d like to send the new Pope a message – Francis, if you’re reading, I’m loving your work so far (especially the bit where you blessed a guide dog). But if you really wish to preside over a Church devoted to the poor, you might want to start by overturning the despicable ban on condoms, with all the attendant misery your policy is inflicting across the developing world.