In A Church Built On Tradition, The Pope Likes Spontaneity
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. In the seven months since he was elected, Pope Francis has shaken up the Catholic world and beyond with his off-the-cuff homilies, his personal email exchanges and unscripted interviews. This week, his Twitter account hit the 10 million mark. The Vatican calls the new papal style conversational, and it's drawing praise from large numbers of Catholics and nonbelievers alike.
But as NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, some conservative Catholics are uncomfortable.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Greg Burke, the Vatican's communications strategist, says that with Francis' election, after a papacy plagued by crises, attitudes toward the Catholic Church changed overnight.
GREG BURKE: I don't know of any other institution in the world where things could have changed so much so quickly in terms of communications and public relations and moral authority.
POGGIOLI: Francis stunned the world in July with an impromptu airborne press conference, where he said, who am I to judge gays? That was followed by a long interview with a Jesuit journal in which he said Catholics should stop being obsessed with abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Then came an interview with an atheist journalist.
Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the left-leaning daily La Repubblica, describes how their encounter came about.
EUGENIO SCALFARI: (Through interpreter) I was stunned when all of a sudden my phone rang and Pope Francis was on the line. He was answering my open letter asking him to join in a conversation. I could hear him leafing through his calendar as he set the time for us to meet.
POGGIOLI: Scalfari met the pope in the small hotel on Vatican grounds that Francis has chosen as his modest residence, forsaking the palatial papal apartment. And Francis made some sensational statements, including: proselytism is solemn nonsense; the world's most serious afflictions today are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. And he also complained about a Vatican-centric view that neglects the world around us.
If that were not enough, Francis has also emerged as the cold-call pope, often picking up the phone and chatting with ordinary people. This poses challenges for his handlers, who don't learn about the conversation until after the fact. And in an organization where papal pronouncements had always been prepared ahead of time and carefully vetted, the press staff now has to keep up with a pope who constantly goes off script.
REVEREND TOM ROSICA: We're dealing with the unexpected, we're dealing with spontaneity. The pope is teaching us the art of communicating.
POGGIOLI: Father Tom Rosica often pitches in as Vatican spokesman.
ROSICA: The most vivid, real, beautiful, powerful example of the new evangelization is not a book, it's not an apostolic exhortation, it's Pope Francis. The pope is becoming the message.
POGGIOLI: But not everybody is comfortable with that message. In Italy, several articles have appeared that reflect the growing unease of unnamed sources within the Vatican bureaucracy over the direction of the new papacy. And in the U.S., many conservative Catholics feel like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, as Pope Francis preaches the message of mercy, reaching out to gays, women, nonbelievers and the secular world.
That leaves more traditionalist Catholics feeling left out, says Robert Mickens, Vatican correspondent of the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet.
ROBERT MICKENS: People who live in a black-and-white kind of world are not satisfied at all with this kind of more elastic or pastoral path that the pope has taken by giving these interviews and using the type of language that he does.
POGGIOLI: Mickens describes the pope's language as both easily understandable and enticing. But he adds that Francis' message is also deeply challenging.
MICKENS: He admonishes people not to be greedy, not to hurt the environment or the creation. These are not just nice things everybody wants to hear; they are strong gospel, prophetic means of talking to people but in a language that is contemporary.
POGGIOLI: Vatican communications strategist Greg Burke acknowledges that for some Catholics living in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world, the pope's emphasis on a church for the poor and his sharp criticism of globalization and laissez-faire capitalism could be very disturbing.
BURKE: Mercy is the main message but to the wealthy, comfortable world, there's going to be a lot of tough love. It's going to be a lot of tough love.
POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.