The news cycle is like a popularity contest — and Pope Francis is winning.
From when he first appeared on the global stage with his election to the papal office to his recent trip to the Philippines that drew six million people to an open-air mass, Pope Francis has been selling newspapers, literally and metaphorically. The current leader of the Roman Catholic church is so popular with the mainstream media he may be garnering the most attention ever for a pontiff, ahead of even Pope John Paul II.
“The media actually for the most part adores him. The conservative wing doesn’t so much. They worry that he’s a bit too liberal. But by and large, the media really likes this man,” said Eric Reguly, European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. “He wants the church to not be ostentatious but to be working with the poor people and that immediately bought him love and respect from the media.”
Reguly has been based in Rome for the past seven years, a prime seat to observe the pope, the Vatican and any media frenzy surrounding it all, and regularly sees Francis on the front pages of Italian newspapers.
“The conclave in 2013 was a journalist mob scene,” he said. “I’ve never seen so many journalists in my life.”
Pope Francis has been different from the beginning. He was the first pontiff in hundreds of years to be elected after a pope — Benedict XVI — who retired from papal office. Once in office, everything from his choice of simple living quarters to his choice of modest transportation became news.
“He decided he’s not going to live in the papal apartment. He drives a little car. He’s always patting children on the head . . . he does all these things that brought him closer to the people, and the media responds to that because they see things changing and one of the things the media does is cover change,” said Toronto Star feature writer Sandro Contenta, author of the eBook The Francis Effect: How the Pope is Changing the Catholic Church.
“There was this sense that there was a change happening. And so a sense of excitement that he sort of instilled in Catholics and everybody was looking at him for all sorts of reasons,” he said.
When Contenta was based in Jerusalem, he covered Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land. And when he was London bureau chief, he would fly to Rome to report on the Vatican.
“I think John Paul II got at least as much coverage as Pope Francis. John Paul II was very charismatic. Remember he used to do big spectacles. He would travel a lot . . . and that got a lot of attention,” he said. “Pope Francis might be covered more than Pope Benedict . . . (a) lot of Catholics feel more in tune with Pope Francis.”
Perception is linked with personality.
“Pope Benedict was very much the scholarly pope and so just on the level of personality, he was less charismatic than Pope Francis and therefore there was less excitement about him in the media,” said Contenta.
“(Francis is) a street pope. He’s a man of the people. He likes to get out with the crowd,” said Reguly.
“He comes across as a man who has confidence. He’s not cautious,” said Rob Robertson, senior producer of news at The National Post. “He doesn’t seem to be filtering what he’s saying. He seems to know what he believes. He seems comfortable to share it with the media and the world and those kinds of figures are always pretty compelling figures, especially when they have something to say.
“Pope John Paul II, who was equally warm and popular beyond the Catholic Church, he was still seen as a somewhat distant figure” and “he didn’t come across like a guy you’d see walking down the street. Whereas you can see Francis, the way he speaks and the allusions he makes, the way he handles himself, he seems more like a parish priest than a pope in his manner, a warm, welcoming, well-liked parish priest.”
Robertson sees the pope’s style as part of the attraction.
“This pope is such an agent of change and I think the Catholic Church has had some bad years publicity-wise because of the sexual abuse scandal . . . and issues around the role of women and things of that nature that a lot of Catholics I think struggled with and Francis makes it easier for casual Catholics and non-Catholics to like and be interested in the pope. He’s just such an agent of change, at least in style. Substance, I guess we’ll figure out over the long term,” said Robertson.
The media’s love affair is aided by Francis’ accessibility. He is known for lengthy news conferences on plane trips, and these often provide front-page stories.
Popes are also often defined in the media by the times in which they serve as pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI, said Reguly, “had a rough time with the media because he inherited the sexual abuse scandals (and) took a lot of criticism . . . Pope Benedict was very much a man under siege. He also had the Vatican bank scandals.”
On the other hand, “John Paul was a superstar. Again, it was a different era. He’s given a lot of credit for tearing down the Iron Curtain,” he said.
Now, in Francis’ time, he is “an old man in a hurry and wants to get a lot of things done. And he’s quite happy to talk about (how) he’s cleaning up the bank finances, how he’s being much more open about discussions, homosexuals and sex . . . basically unimaginable under (Benedict),” said Reguly.
“What Pope Francis did was change the tone of the media coverage,” said Contenta. “It was highly positive during what you called his ‘honeymoon period,’ and I would argue it continues to be generally positive because Francis is showing he is serious about making changes at the Vatican bank, the Curia and in how church decisions are made, to name only three areas.”
Mainstream media coverage on Pope Francis has changed since early 2013. It is less about his personality and more about how he’s managing the church.
“Now people are very much waiting to see what the real change will be. We now have a very good measure of the man as a person, as a pope who is willing to pick up the phone and actually call people, a pope who’s very down to earth. All of that still feels like a breath of fresh air to a lot of people and to the media,” said Contenta. “But there is an understanding that real change, as far as doctrinal change in the church, is still very much an open question and is still very much being debated. That kind of result takes a very long time in the church and people are waiting to see in fact how much of that will happen under his papacy.”