1. Religion & Spirituality
Scott P. Richert

Pope Francis and the Cult of Personality

By July 12, 2013

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Early yesterday, I noticed a headline from England's Daily Mail popping up on Facebook. Posted primarily by my traditionalist Catholic friends, it read: "Pope demands brand new life-size statue of him at Buenos Aires . . . "

How odd, I thought. And how seemingly out of character for Pope Francis, who (depending on whom you believe) either is a truly humble man or at least cultivates (for whatever reason) an image of humility.

Something did not seem right. But before clicking through to read the Daily Mail article, I read some of the comments posted by people on Facebook. Not surprisingly, perhaps, remarks ranged from droll to nasty, contrasting the Holy Father's reputation for humility with this seemingly prideful act.

Some commenters, though, warned that the headline was (as I had suspected) not what it seemed. And when I clicked through, I realized that Facebook, for purposes of space, had truncated the headline (thus the ellipsis at the end): "Pope demands brand new life-size statue of him at Buenos Aires cathedral is taken down as he 'does not wish to be a celebrity.'" Below the full version of the headline sat a subhead: "Pope told the priest responsible: 'Get that thing down immediately.'"

Now that, I thought, sounds more like Pope Francis—whatever anyone may think of him.

If the images in the Daily Mail article are any indication, the fiberglass statue is grotesque, and one can certainly imagine the subject of the statue objecting to it for many reasons in addition to humility. Yet further down in the article, the Daily Mail's Hannah Robert (writing from Rome) reports that "Church sources told the newspaper that Francis is determined to avoid creating 'a cult of personality' like that enjoyed by John Paul II."

That may strike some as an odd line, because one of the criticisms leveled against Francis since his election in March, especially by certain traditionalist Catholics, has been that his seeming humility has actually been in the service of the creation of a cult of personality, which they liken to that which surrounded the late Polish pope. Few seem to have similar thoughts about Pope Benedict XVI, even though he certainly did not shun the spotlight or cut back on the number of papal public appearances after his election in 2005. (In fact, if anything, Benedict held more public appearances in the seven years of his papacy than John Paul II held in the last seven years of his, if only because of John Paul's failing health.)

Now, I happen to think that the modern papacy has indeed been characterized by a cult of personality, but the "modern papacy" is not confined to the popes from Francis back to John Paul II, or even John XXIII. The cult of personality surrounding the popes extends back at least to the early 20th century, and arguably to Pope Pius IX, the longest-reigning (1846-78) pope and the father of the First Vatican Council. Elected at a time not too dissimilar to ours, when many thought that the Catholic Church was on Her way to the dustbin of history, Pius confounded the expectations of those who thought he would be the last pope, and he did so largely through the force of his personality.

Indeed, many opponents of the doctrine of papal infallibility, declared at Vatican I, had regarded it as putting an inordinate emphasis on the person of the pope. After Vatican I, the papacy took on increased importance on the world stage. If modern transportation allowed John Paul and Benedict to travel more extensively than earlier popes, their apostolic journeys—and the crowds that came to greet them in every country they visited—were a logical outgrowth of the reinvigorated papacy post-Pius IX.

Yet as the disparate reactions to John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis show, most critics of a papal cult of personality have been inconsistent in their criticisms. Few, for instance, who find the depth of the faithful's attraction to John Paul and Francis disturbing would ever raise the same questions regarding, say, Pope Pius X. To take just one obvious example, Francis has been criticized for a "false humility" playing into a "cult of personality" for his decision not to occupy the papal apartments overlooking Saint Peter's Square, but those apartments were first set up in 1903, at the beginning of the reign of Pius X, and their grandeur and the public access to the pope that they offered were an obvious reflection of the cult of personality attached to the modern papacy.

For these reasons, I think that much of the criticism of the cult of personality surrounding John Paul II has been unreflective and misplaced; like the negative reactions to the truncated Daily Mail headline concerning the statue of Pope Francis, it reflects less a true concern over a cult of personality and more of an underlying dissatisfaction with certain elements of John Paul's reign. Some of that dissatisfaction may touch on matters of doctrine and even more on matters of discipline, but much of it, as we're seeing now with Pope Francis, comes down to questions of personal style. Those who were more comfortable with Benedict's personal style than with John Paul's or Francis's (and I count myself among them) weren't worried about a cult of personality attached to Benedict, even though it was certainly as real as the cult of personality attached to any of the modern popes.

To the extent that the cult of personality surrounding the modern papacy has been a dangerous thing—and I would argue that it has, in fact, on occasion distracted the faithful from the substance of the Faith—the story of the statue of Pope Francis is a good sign. It indicates the Holy Father's desire that the faithful focus on the message, not on the man; that we look beyond questions of personal style to the substance of the Faith, shared and preached by all of the successors of Saint Peter.

Whatever else one may think of Pope Francis, that is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

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July 12, 2013 at 11:37 am
(1) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent piece.

July 12, 2013 at 11:46 am
(2) Lionel (Paris) says:

On that point, I agree with you.
All the best LD

July 12, 2013 at 11:53 am
(3) Kim Day says:

I tend to see the “cult of personality” accusations as a form of ad hominem, if you don’t like the man’s policies but can’t sensibly verbalize those objection call him an egotist who cares more about himself than the church. If you read anything written by the last three popes it’s clear that all had developed their thinking and theology over decades, prayerfully and with sincere intent, even though some of the ideas may have been weak none-the-less. Benedict XVI’s shoes are a silly example, even though B16 clearly thought the church and his office deserved grandeur and hoped that these would inspire the faithful. It was off target but sincere and not based on his own own ego.

July 12, 2013 at 12:13 pm
(4) Maria says:

Thank you so much for an enlightening
piece of article. I totally agree that Pope Francis personality comes on different ways and forms. He is a Jesuit. He is our humble
Pope. it is so hard to be humble. He speaks the truth. He is simple and true and authentic and I believe
he is there for a reason. Pride is one of the deadliest sin. And the world is full of it. Humility is a virtue and Pope Francis depicts so. I would like to request
from you.
Can you write
an article regarding Pope Francis choice of driving Ford Focus instead of BMW that his previous predecessor had. Thank in advance for your undying effort to write so many factual and real headlines about my true and real religion- Roman Catholic. I appreciate the goodness of your
heart. May God continuously bless us and keep
us in His love and protection. This is a
changing world. But We shall overcome secularism. Thank you a million times over. Keep u

July 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm
(5) Cindy says:

Thank you very much for this piece. I’m really extremely tired of the constant articles that don’t really focus on the core of the issue.

July 12, 2013 at 2:15 pm
(6) Carl Ladd says:

Thank you for this piece. I find Pope Francis’ humility and lack of presumption refreshingly spiritual in this materialistic world. I hope we can begin to discern his papacy based upon his own words and deeds rather than those put in his mouth by others.

July 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm
(7) Antonio B. Magtibay says:

I think the truncation by Daily Mail was a deliberate act to attract attention and more readers. They should be aware that what they did relayed the opposite of what really happened. Very irresponsible and misuse of editorial “power’.

July 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm
(8) Deb says:

Thank you for setting the record straight as you always do. Thank you again just for emphasis. Don’t ever stop what you are doing.

July 12, 2013 at 7:09 pm
(9) luis says:

I have to disagree with the article, since I do not see the request to remove the statue as an act of humility, on the contrary. I believe Francis is a bit obsessed with creating an image of one who is humble. I have to remind you that humility is silent, it doesn’t show or is not public. If the argentinias want to have a statue of their Pope, who happens to be Argentinian, why not? Where is the problem? It reminds of the decision to remove the Throne of Peter from the Vatican and replace it with a more humble one; I ask: in what way did that decision saved any money? Papal Thrones are for the glory of God, not for men; their were demanded by God to be constructed with the best materials, including, gold. So to me, I saw inthere a break with traditions in the name of the “poor”. I’m a traditional catholic militant (not sedevecantist) and I get a gut feeling, a bad one regarding all these forced signs of humility. Have in mind we live in the end times, a period Jesus gave us so we could recognize the last apostasy and the near second coming.

July 12, 2013 at 10:54 pm
(10) FPatti Day says:

It’s difficult to really know

July 12, 2013 at 11:07 pm
(11) Patti Day says:

It’s difficult to know a man after so short a time, but Francis seems authentic and sincere to me. He certainly doesn’t seem to be out to win any personality contests, since he regularly upsets both the traddies and the progressives who think they have him figured out. Give him a year. I bet he’ll still be the humble man he appears to be

July 13, 2013 at 12:33 am
(12) Salvy says:

My gut reaction is that people should lighten up if they’re worried the Pope is on some kind of ego trip. This isn’t John Corapi or Timothy Dolan, here.

July 13, 2013 at 1:18 am
(13) Ree says:

Yes Luis I am with you in thought. The antipope will appear to be humble, but it is external, his job is to try to the works his predecessors started. Be vigilant to see if he joins forces with one who performs miracles. The devil can appear as an angel of light.

July 13, 2013 at 1:55 am
(14) Peter Francis Salulen says:

It is good to hear from different people about Pope Francis. But for me I confidently belief that hell will not overcome the Church, even if the Succesor mislead, Christ will make His way out because Church is His body. But we keep on praying that P.Francis will lead us into eternity.
Thankyou for publishing this article.

July 13, 2013 at 3:20 am
(15) John Henry says:

Pope Francis represents Christ on earth and for this reason because we love Christ enormously we must respect and love Pope Francis.

July 13, 2013 at 4:37 am
(16) Yae says:

Thank you for your article and clarification. You are always fair, well balanced and clear. I like that about your site. I had already read about Pope Francis’s request to have that statute removed and I can understand why. He does not seek the limelight, I have never gotten the impression that he does. I have been following all things Pope Francis since his election. He is sincere in his efforts to proclaim Christ to us.
Sure, he does not dress like we would like him too, but he is sincere and loves Jesus and the Church! Let’s keep praying for him like he asks and give him time much like our Lord Jesus gives us time…good for him to reject that statute!
Viva il Papa!

July 13, 2013 at 8:36 am
(17) Joy Job Thottukadavil says:

No wonder, a man of integrity and righteousness will always be misunderstood and even attempted to tarnish in all ways, even unto the crucifixion. That was the lot of Christ ! Don’t get upset my lord, Your Holiness Pope Francis. We are there to pray for you.

July 15, 2013 at 10:38 am
(18) Frederick J Hass says:

A show of humility is an ostentation and unbecomingq.
There is a certain arrogance and lack of respect in abandoning papal traditions.

July 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm
(19) Angel says:

Reflects strong conviction to do things no matter human aceptance, but good for the Lord´s visión and plan through the help of our lady.

July 16, 2013 at 12:41 am
(20) camille says:

Pope Francis .I say Amen,,,If the world start to complain you, you know you are on the right track …The JESUS Track, Amen

September 16, 2013 at 7:43 am
(21) Kurt Underkofler says:

The constant assault on Christians gets old, this kind of assault is never on Muslims or the left nor it should be. Let me know when being a good person and believing in God became such a bad thing. Thanks <a href=http://www.papalfrancis.com/> Kurt Uderkofler </a>

December 11, 2013 at 10:22 pm
(22) Celine says:

Person of the Year, Time
St. John: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease”

In less than a year, Pope Francis’s popularity has increased exponentially.

He is called super star, “darling of the media” is admired, loved, praised and exalted by atheists; agnostics; infidels, abortionists, feminists, gays, new agers, humanists, non-Catholics, anti-Catholics; Neo-Con Catholics who bend backwards to justify his doctrinal errors and liberal Catholics. He is now “Person of the Year” in Time Magazine. Ironically, in the same article, Time writes a very pertinent fact: “…And behind his self-effacing facade, he is a very canny operator…” How very appropriate.

In this same article, Time calls “irreconcilable” and takes a jab at: “The elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass …” “this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions… weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics,.. ” “…Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—…—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI …”

The only ones left out are CATHOLICS. They are shown no mercy, kindness, forgiveness or love. In fact they are persecuted.

So Pope Francis has increased and Jesus Christ has decreased.

Paul: [3] Let no man deceive you by any means, for unless there come a revolt first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, [4] Who opposeth, and is lifted up above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself as if he were God. [5] Remember you not, that when I was yet with you, I told you these things? … [14] Therefore, brethren, stand fast; and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word, or by our epistle.

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