Tags: Extraordinary Synod of Bishops | Pope Francis

Pope's Message Lost in Translation

Wednesday, 26 November 2014 08:49 AM Current | Bio | Archive

While Pope Francis continues to be wildly popular with most Catholics and a surprisingly large number of non-Catholics, all is not smooth sailing on the barque of Peter. The uproar over the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family that took place last month capped a growing discontent in some Catholic circles over where the Pope is heading and whether they want to follow.

The popularity of Pope Francis remains undeniable. From social media — more than 10 million Twitter followers — to crowds of pilgrims in Rome to recent rumors he might win the Nobel Peace Prize, Pope Francis is a hot ticket. Secular media as well as Catholics know that anything bearing his name or likeness is going to attract attention. One needn’t have darkened a church doorway in years to recognize that this Pope’s superstar ratings are in the stratosphere.

While the Church has needed some good news lately, the danger with celebrity is that people stop listening to what the Pope says and does, and simply start using him as a kind of cultural green screen upon which they can project their wishes and fantasies. He is the “Who am I to judge?” Pope, even though he is not at all afraid to judge, and judge harshly, abuses and failings in the church and in society.

Which brings us to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. Convened by Pope Francis to outline issues concerning the family for the larger Ordinary Synod of Bishops in fall 2015, this was preceded by an intense debate between cardinals about how the church could address the problem of those divorced and remarried outside the church.

This debate may have primed the media pump to expect some dramatic change from the synod. It certainly raised expectations that something big was in the offing, even though the Pope himself took the wind out of these sails when he announced before the synod a special commission to look at reforms in the annulment process.

It was against this backdrop that the synod fathers released an interim document following the first week of meetings behind closed doors. A tsunami of headlines followed.
Unexpected wording regarding cohabitation, gay unions and divorce had journalists running for their metaphors, the favorite one being “earthquake.” Was the church changing its position on core doctrine it had long been identified with?

Knowledgeable people knew this was hardly the case, but like a bad game of telephone, the story got more exaggerated with each retelling. In the great accelerator that is now the 24/7 media world, the bishops had probably not even finished lunch after their midday press conference before Catholics around the world were being told that their church had just done an about face.

By the end of week two, I’m sure that some bishops felt they had put the genie back in the bottle. The wording of the final document was toned down. Transparency — not in great supply during week one or week two — was given a nod when the votes on each paragraph of this document were released. The bishops packed up and went home.

The aftershocks continue. The Pope himself may no longer be just a media superstar.
He is becoming a lightning rod. For some conservatives, he was to blame for all the confusion. For some liberals, the mid-synod paper confirmed their fondest hopes.
As I read the battling blogs, the celebrations and the allegations, I had the disturbing feeling that I was watching the Obamafication of the Pope.

Like Obama, Francis was a ground-breaker. Francis is the first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit Pope; he has an undeniable gift for connecting with ordinary people. My fear is that, like Obama, the Pope is also being transformed into a polarizing figure. Instead of listening to the Pope as shepherd, we are measuring him to see if he fits our positions.

If that happens, both sides are to blame, because the rush to impugn motives and allege grand conspiracies is afflicting both the left and the right. For some on the right, the change of tone after 35 years of John Paul II and Benedict has understandably been a challenge.

For some on the left, who have been wailing and gnashing their teeth in the dark lo these past 35 years, the rush to settle scores and give tit for tat has been a temptation too sweet to resist. All of this does great damage to the Catholic community.

Naively, I’m sure, I hope we can all take a deep breath and ask ourselves, once again, what was the Holy Spirit telling us when Pope Francis was elected at that remarkable conclave? What should we be focusing on? Forget the star-making machinery. Let’s focus on what the Pope is teaching in word and deed, not which of our fantasies he is going to fulfill.

And while the Vatican cannot be chided for all the misleading headlines and overwrought news coverage the synod received, I would hope that there could be both more transparency and more control next time.

If transparency is really a value, allow the speeches to be heard and the debates to be engaged, or at least provide a context in which the debate can be understood. As the synod turmoil showed, however, the Vatican should never forget that no media strategy is to have a strategy — just not one you can control.

Gregory R. Erlandson is the president of the Publishing Division for Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States. Erlandson is also an adviser on the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, and has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Read more reports from him — Click Here Now.

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Instead of listening to the Pope as shepherd, we are measuring him to see if he fits our positions.
Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis
Wednesday, 26 November 2014 08:49 AM
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