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In A Church Built On Tradition, The Pope Likes Spontaneity

A young man gives a Catholic skullcap to Pope Francis as he greets the crowd before his general audience at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Oct. 16.
Alberto Pizzoli
AFP/Getty Images
A young man gives a Catholic skullcap to Pope Francis as he greets the crowd before his general audience at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Oct. 16.

In the seven months since he was elected, Pope Francis has shaken up the Catholic world and beyond with off-the-cuff homilies, phone calls to ordinary folk and unscripted interviews. His Twitter followers now exceed 10 million. Described by the Vatican as "conversational," the new papal style is drawing praise from large numbers of Catholics and nonbelievers alike.

But it's also making some conservative Catholics deeply uncomfortable.

Greg Burke, the Vatican's communications strategist, says that with Francis' election — after a papacy plagued by crises — attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church changed overnight.

"I don't know of any other institution in the world where things could have changed so much and so quickly in terms of communications and public relations and moral authority," Burke says.

Surprising Spontaneity

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.

"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," Scalfari recalls. "I could hear him leafing through his calendar as he set the time for us to meet."

The journalist 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" and "The world's most serious afflictions today are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old."

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 some conversations 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.

"We are dealing with the unexpected, with spontaneity," says the Rev. Tom Rosica, who often pitches in as Vatican spokesman. "The pope is teaching us the art of communicating."

"The most vivid example of the new evangelization is not a book, not an apostolic exhortation, it's Pope Francis," Rosica says. "The pope is becoming the message."

For Developed World, 'A Lot Of Tough Love'

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 for The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly.

"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," he says.

Mickens describes the pope's language as both easily understandable and enticing. But he adds that Francis' message is also deeply challenging.

"His strong admonitions against greed, not to be greedy, not to hurt the environment ... these are not just nice things people want to hear; they are strong gospel, prophetic means of talking to people but in a language that is contemporary," Mickens says.

Burke, the Vatican communications strategist, 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.

"Mercy is the main message," Burke says. "But in the wealthy comfortable world, there's going to be a lot of tough love."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.