Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Pope You Can Eat (Comment) pope, a porn star and a parrot walk into a bar.

Well, almost. 

Their point of intersection just a week and a half ago was actually St. Peter’s Square, and “porn star” stretches things: The performer in question was reportedly a former male stripper who had graduated to racy movies and, this being Italy, was once head of his town council. 

Sounds like prime minister material to me. 

A chip off the old Silvio.

He brought the bird, named Amore, to meet the pope, meaning Francis, who was taking one of his routine spins among the flock in the popemobile. Amore caught Francis’ eye, perched briefly on one of his fingers and squawked what the crowd was chanting: “Papa!” Those syllables, I’d bet, were a big improvement over other utterances Amore has learned to mimic.

It’s amazing what you miss if you don’t stay on top of Vatican news these days.

Did you hear about the Harley? A gift to Francis that he put his signature on but apparently never used, the motorcycle was just auctioned off for more than $275,000.

Or his recent introduction to a life-size likeness of himself made out of chocolate? 

Pope Benedict XVI was known as “God’s Rottweiler.” 

Pope Francis has a dessert doppelgänger. 

That pretty much says it all.

It was Pope John Paul II who was often called a rock star, but it’s Francis who just landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, as if he were Jagger, Springsteen or Spears. 

Seeing him there was like finding Mitch McConnell scowling below the logo of Tiger Beat.

On my vague mental list of things that might someday come back into fashion, the papacy was never present. I used to cover it for The Times, from 2002 to 2004, and was convinced then that my beat wasn’t just a dying man — John Paul could barely walk and struggled to talk — but a dying institution, at least in the United States and much of Europe.

But the bevy of bulletins from Rome and the merry nature of so many of them suggest that people everywhere, even in the more godless precincts of the Western world, can’t get enough of this new pope and are committed to giving him the benefit of the doubt. 

The United Nations last week issued a blistering and wholly warranted report about the Roman Catholic Church’s coddling of sexually abusive priests and its evasion of full accountability, but in none of the news coverage was Francis put on the hot seat. 

There was this implicit notion that the mess predated and had little to do with him, which is ridiculous: He’s been a part of this institution for a long time, and if he’d been agitating for reform and full transparency all these years, he’d never have ascended to the top.

He’s no renegade. 

But he is the equivalent of a corporate turnaround artist or a political strategist who deftly breathes fresh life into a sputtering enterprise. I use those secular metaphors because his rehabilitation of the papacy has so much secular resonance and so many secular lessons.

Like this: If you’re going to define yourself in opposition to a predecessor whom many people had misgivings about, go all the way. Francis is the Bill de Blasio to Benedict’s Michael Bloomberg, doing a complete semiotic overhaul. 

Less investment in festive footwear, more in the washing of other people’s feet. He’s not telling priests to stop being priests, any more than de Blasio is telling the police to stop being the police. He’s just urging them to tamp down the brusqueness and bullying. No more theological stop-and-frisk.

He understands that tone trumps content — that it’s everything, really. 

The writer Damon Linker has contributed lively, intelligent pieces of commentary to the publications The Week and The New Republic that take Francis-fawning journalists to task for seeing a revolution that’s just not there.

Linker asserts that the church, under this pope, has not in fact changed its teaching about homosexuality, the ordination of women, celibacy or any of that.

And he’s absolutely correct. 

But he gives short shrift to what a difference a smile and a shrug make. Francis, who has mastered both, may not be telling the church’s scolds that they have to relinquish their dogma, but his manner and diction are telling everyone else that he’s not going to harangue them — that it’s neither his inclination nor his place. 

And that’s huge. 

“Who am I to judge?” he said. 

This, from a pope, is like Streisand saying, “Who am I to sing?” 

It’s a bit of self-effacement that you never saw coming.
FRANCIS has also grasped that timing is everything, a point proved by the reception to his recent apostolic exhortation about the corrosive effects of greed in the world. 

This statement was lauded as a bold, overdue enunciation of muffled Catholic principle, but his predecessors, even Benedict in his fur-lined stole, didn’t exactly cheer the excesses of corporate titans and upbraid the underclass for being loafers hooked on government largess.

Charity for the poor is as consistent a message as any the church preaches. 

Francis just landed his sermon at the perfect moment of welling anxiety about income inequality, and he had the additional savvy to pepper it with words and phrases at the heart of the heated political debate about what to do.

Besides, he’s attentive to the coordination of message and optics. Advocating generosity toward the needy is infinitely more effective when you’ve traded the usual papal residence for a less-regal guesthouse and the customary chariot for a Ford Focus. It has a practicing-what-you-preach modesty and authenticity to it.

Above all, Francis has recognized and taken advantage of the fact that people of all stripes — liberals, conservatives — are as hungry for saints as they are for, well, chocolate. 

They may not have much patience for the vocabulary of shame and the fustiest definitions of sin, but they want examples of goodness and calls to grace, and they’ll respond eagerly to the ones that don’t come with exclusionary rules and harping about penance. 

That’s part of what gave Mandela and Gandhi such currency beyond their countries. They were spiritual leaders minus the catechism. The world has no glut of these.

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God,” Francis has said, and he’s even expressed respect for atheists. 

When one of the stars of “Philomena” and the woman on whom it’s based visited the Vatican last week, he wasn’t put off by complaints about the movie’s anti-Catholicism or suspicion that the pair’s visit was part of an Oscar campaign. 

He welcomed and met with them.

An ecumenical papacy, he realizes, has more sway and stamina than a narrowly, stridently pious one. 

It’s a big tent he’s unfurling. 

Parrots and porn stars welcome.

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