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.