Don’t Hush the Pope: Discerning the Spirit of Papal Communication

I am thrilled to share with you today the thoughts of my colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome on the recent media coverage of Pope Francis.

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Recently, the Pope made big headlines, in both the Catholic and secular public fora.  In the context of his now-famous in-flight interviews he commented on both Donald Trump and on the Zika virus, both of which are of course topics that currently capture the attention of the American public. (See text of his comments here.) Almost immediately, we saw a pattern that we have come to expect from these in-flight conversations: a few simple words, delivered informally, that become ground zero for the firestorm of media attention that ensues.

Some of the phrases still left smoldering after these firestorms linger on:

We don’t have to breed like rabbits.

I’ll punch you if you insult my mom.

Trump is not a Christian.

Now that we have Zika, contraception is ok.

The morning after Trump/Zika exploded, I listened to a Catholic news outlet analyze the firestorm during its morning program. Considerable time was spent discussing the various rationales for the Pope’s off-the-cuff remarks that have yet again caused so much trouble. With some unease about accepting this form of papal communication, the commentators sought other explanations.  Some reasons were basic and physiological. He is 79. He was jet-lagged. He was tired because he has just spent five days in Mexico on a pastoral visit. Another set of reasons moved into exploring institutional or organizational issues:  he does not listen to his communications advisors, he does not perceive from a media perspective the global implication of his words, he sometimes likes to be independent from the constraints of the office, he does not perceive the lack of theological training in journalists or even the listening public, and he likes to be one of the people and he acts as such.

As a bottom like, much concern was voiced over this: if the Pope is not careful with these in-flight interviews, this adds to the confusion of people who hear his statements through the media. Perhaps it would be better if he stuck to a more formal style of interview, as has been the tradition of previous popes. That way, these firestorms might be quelled to camp-fire size when it comes to media attention.

In all of this analysis, the assumption was clear: the Pope’s in-flight interviews lead to trouble, and his off-the-cuff remarks are mistakes that need to be reined in. Otherwise, we have confusion, misunderstanding and a fundamental challenge on our hands about our perceptions of the Church.

The cautious, uneasy tension of this program left me wondering. Should we be so ready to explain away the actions of the Pope, as if he was the loose-lipped older uncle at a family wedding after a couple of drinks? We politely make excuses and explain away his words to show our more sober side to balance his less inhibited one. We remain nervous about the next family gathering, and hold our breath any time he comes near the microphone.

Perhaps there is a different way to think about this.

From the perspective of pastoral communication, the Pope continues to be a fascinating, dynamic example. He (and the team of people around him who make it happen) sustains a presence on Twitter, meets and greets people by video-conferencing, disseminates his monthly prayer intentions by YouTube, and has just written a children’s book. He seems to be a person who is open to as many ways of communication as possible so as to continue to share the Gospel. His in-flight interviews as new forms of papal communication fall under the category of this general openness to communication.  In this vein, it would be a shame to rein them in just for the sake of their novelty. We may as well shut down @Pontifex then too and lose some 25 million social media followers.

It strikes me that what we fear the most about the in-flight interviews is the media firestorm around select phrases that then leads to confusion. Firestorms and communication – let’s pause with these words because they speak so deeply to our Christian imagination. They bring to mind that upper room in the nascent days of the Church, on that Pentecost day when the disciples were gathered and awaiting the Spirit. It should not be lost on us that the Spirit came with tongues of fire, and gave the disciples the ability to speak in a way that all those gathered in Jerusalem could hear and understand the Word.  As opposed to confusion, the firestorm of the Spirit led to utmost clarity, and communication of the Word that brought people there that day into communion.

Whenever the authentic communication of the faith is occurring, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Animating the Church, that too is the work of the Spirit. And selecting and inspiring the Pope to serve the Church, this too is Spirit-led.   Why then do we not leave room for the Spirit on the papal flight when Francis stands before the reporters and is handed the mic?

Of course, to look for the Spirit we look for the fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Gal. 5:22-23) If the spirit of what the Pope says clearly contradicts these, we might have cause for concern. If the spirit of what he says manifests these, let’s continue to listen.

While discerning the Spirit, one clear challenge is the amount of confusion or misinformation that some of the statements have generated. As opposed to the Pentecost scene, the fallout after a media firestorm is more like the toppling tower of Babel in the confusion upon confusion that circulates on social media and on news outlets. How to discern the Spirit here?

In the firestorm, I find the Spirit in the massive amount of potential for conversation that is generated after each “bomb” of a statement. After Francis utters a few sentences, the whole world remains in conversation for days. For better or for worse, people everywhere are paying attention, entering into debate and discussion, thinking further about what the Pope may have meant.  To me, especially as theological educator, this is a glorious opportunity, and a gift of the Spirit. It is full of possibility, full of hope, despite its messy trappings. It is that distinct moment of looking out from that upper room, heart aflame, ready to engage the masses who are still discordant, still lacking in understanding the Word or one another. It is a Pentecost moment that is still unfolding.

Some may critique Pope Francis for over-estimating the ability of the media to understand and report with theological sophistication, and for over-estimating the general public’s theological acumen. There is validity to this critique and much-much room to grow in this regard.  Any yet, where I see the opportunity for conversation, I also see the opportunity for education. Whenever the Pope makes a statement that we know has greater depth and context to it, it is as if he is handing on the challenge to us, theological educators, whether members of the Catholic media, parents, pastors, ministers, catechists or teachers to take the time and go deeper in a way that he is not able to at that moment, while standing in front of reporters mid-flight.  He is handing us opportunities for conversation and calls us to continue these wherever we can.

As a Pope who is committed to decentralization, and delegating what can be delegated to qualified, faithful, capable people I see the model of his communication mid-flight as another example of this. He captures the moment, generates world-wide attention, and delegates the longer conversation to the rest of us.  To me, this is Spirit-led and recalls another moment of Pentecost: As the Father has sent me, so I send you. (John 20:21)

Let’s not hush the Pope:  it would be a lost opportunity to rein in the communication that occurs in these in-flight interviews.  They add another kind of papal communication to the list of encyclicals, letters, homilies, messages and audiences that we already expect from the Pope, and it is a new kind of communication that calls the rest of us into communication as well. Our spirit groans while we are in the midst of understanding how these fit in, what ‘authority’ we ought to give them, and what should be our response. (For a funny take on this, see link here.)  Yet, this is the dynamism of the Church in action, and the work of the Spirit moving us forward to continue to communicate faith.

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome Ph.D. (@DaniellaZsJ) is assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis and evangelization at Loyola University in New Orleans.

This entry was posted in Faith.

8 comments on “Don’t Hush the Pope: Discerning the Spirit of Papal Communication

  1. nos says:

    And the truth shall set you free…what a great vicar we have been blessed with…

  2. Tiber Swimmer says:

    A lovely sentiment – and Spirit led is good, though under such an approach things can become fuzzier before they become clearer. Unfortunately, some of these mid-flight comments put those very same qualified, faithful, capable people on the defensive right out of the gate. Isn’t that the very thing that this pope said he wanted to stop doing? And those who look for opportunities to attack the Church don’t tend to aim their spears at those qualified, faithful capable people, they come after us schmoes in the pews who are trying to figure things out ourselves and can be easily caught ill prepared to offer a suitable apologia.

    • Dear Tiber Swimmer –
      Thank you for thinking with this further. I suppose I am questioning and analyzing here that precise reaction you name: being on the defensive right out of the gate. To be defensive means one senses a threat and fortifies oneself to ward it off. What is the threat many of us may be sensing here? Perhaps the media firestorm that will ensue or perhaps that state of confusion that usually follows? I am proposing here that perhaps instead of threat, these are an opportunity. If it is an opportunity, we may see more constructive thought, passion and energy and less defensiveness as a response.
      I also think that qualified, faithful and capable people include those who are in the pew. Parents, catechists, lay ministers or simply, the faithful laity. Qualifications and contexts may be different, but by virtue of our baptism, we are all called to communicate the faith in one way or another.
      Thank you again for your response,
      Daniella Zsupan-Jerome

    • Well worded Tiber Swimmer. It’s the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes your comments readable.
      “Come Holy Spirit come, and renew the face of the earth.”
      Sometimes, the potato on the pew has more words different from the Light Bringer.

  3. Anthony says:

    This is fantastic, and I affirm every word in it. In fact, I will make sure to reference this in my next podcast. 🙂

  4. Marta says:

    Love what you say. Our church is currently doing a book study on Laudato Si and i’ve felt during my reading that the Pope wants our open discussions and dialogue between one another first. People were so quick to judge what he said but haven’t even taken the time to read it.

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