The Pope Francis Phenomenon


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We’re searching the Pope Francis Phenomenon in this radio hour: the man from Argentina and his many messages from Rome, his body language, feet-washings, mob scenes in Vatican Square. He “even uses words” now and then, as the 13th Century Saint Francis urged back in the day.

Pope Francis wants a church that’s “bruised, hurting and dirty” – his words — in the streets with real people, not confined or clinging to its own security. He had the audacity as no Pope before him to choose the beloved name Francis for the saint of birds and nature, the saint marked hand and foot with the wounds of Jesus. As the votes were being cast to elect him last Spring, the name “entered my heart,” he said. “Francis of Assissi; for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others.”

We have to search his past, his plans for a faith and an institution that seemed to be limping. We want to search ourselves too: what is the human hunger Pope Francis has confirmed – not just Catholic or churchy — all across the world. What is the wave-length on which so many non-religious people “get” him? Why TIME magazine’s hands-down runaway pick for Man of the Year, 2013? And what does the blogger Andrew Sullivan mean when he says “you don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace…”? Delivering not hope, but “proof that hope is not groundless.”

Guest List
James Carroll
the great Catholic columnist, journalist, and author most recently of Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age.
Mary Gordon
professor of English at Barnard College and author of The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas.
Jeff Sharlet
editor at Rolling Stone, author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, and Instagram-famous journalist.
Peter Manseau
memoirist and author of One Nation, Under Gods, a retelling of American history. 
Reading List
A Big Heart Open to God
Pope Francis
The Pope's wonderfully expressive, open, personal account of himself in an interview with the Jesuit magazine America.
"Who Am I to Judge?: A Radical Pope's First Year"
James Carroll
Carroll's New Yorker profile of Francis in his new papacy.
Untier of Knots: What is the Meaning of Pope Francis?
Andrew Sullivan
a richly opinionated take on the new Pope at The Deep Dish.
Is Pope Francis the New Champion of Liberation Theology?
Harvey Cox
Harvey Cox's vision of a left-wing church, in The Nation.

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  • Gerald Fnord

    I appreciate that his efforts may help some more of the poor get fed, and at least provoke some cognitive dissonance in a few “Christian” “conservatives” (at least the ones who don’t think the Pope the Antichrist), but he still represents a faith that holds that equates people with zygotes, has only recently acquiesced to the principal of civil religious liberty (which it formerly condemned as treating Truth and Error equally), and holds that where people consensually place their genitals can so upset the Creator of the Universe that, loving Father though he may be held to be, He considers them liable to eternal torment thereby.

    I can’t call that ‘humble’ however many feet he may wash.

  • Kate McShane

    I’m not Catholic, but I was raised Catholic — poor working class Catholic in the 1950s, on our knees all the time, hearing sermons and the nuns all day, which taught us how sinful we were, dirty, really. And I became a nun. By the time I got there, imagining it would be a good life, in which I could be in communication with God, and spend my days working for poor people, the religious order in which I lived had already begun to passive aggressively act out against Pope John XXIII’s changes. They heard that I had worked in North Philly and they were enraged that I knew black kids. I was too young to understand what a threat this was to them. They didn’t want me to influence other novices, most of whom came from white middle class suburbs. When I began to share some of my art and writing about poverty, (anti)Viet Nam War, general late 1960s culture, racism, they called my parents and told them to take me home. I was 21 and it was a devastating experience. I hung on for a little while with the radicals in the Catholic Peace Fellowship, but after that, I got as far away from the Catholic Church as I could. Still, I was pulling away from everything I knew and the church looked more reprehensible with every step. Now you couldn’t pay me to be affiliated with any church. When I read Pope Francis’ statements, I feel like light is opening up in my heart, my soul. In tiny increments, my lifelong loneliness is being eased. Despite my political sophistication, I look forward to reading what he has said, what he’s doing. I don’t think it’s a public relations campaign. He sounds to me like a very spiritually advanced human being. I guess I still feel somewhat cautious, but I feel great longing for him to be a good man.

  • chris

    Such a lovely, loving message, dear Kate. Most beautiful to me is your forgiving and (dare I say?) healed readiness for a light opening up in your heart and soul, your longing for this pope to be a good man indeed. So many things in your story echo the awful cruelty in Ireland not so long ago as dramatized in Philomena, the shocking, marvelous movie with Judy Dench and Steve Coogan. In that case, too, it was the victim of the Church’s nutty, brutal war who transcends the damage. I’ve been thinking a lot about the peculiarly Irish Catholic disease — the obsessions with sex, the self-hating anti-humanity that zigs and zags, broad and deep, in the culture we grew up in. And isn’t it astonishing that the Pope himself is leading the charge to renounce it and recover ourselves?

    • Kate McShane

      Speaking of light filling my heart and soul, that’s how I felt when I read your reply, Chris. I’ve been trying to catch up a little bit on the shows you’ve done and I realize again the intimate feel of each one. I’m wading in slowly and I know that you and your show are going to be my community. As for the peculiarly Irish Catholic disease, the “self-hating anti-humanity that zigs and zags, broad and deep, in the culture” — what a great description of so many of our childhoods that weighed on the rest of our lives. I’ve spent my adult life trying to get out from under the building they dropped on me. Also, thanks for the movie recommendation. I’m not familiar with it, but I like Judy Dench. I’m looking forward to the show about the Pope.

  • Chris, thanks for last week’s fine program on El Sistema and music education. I caught it on Sunday, so I’m grateful that the show airs more than once.

    Rather than commenting myself, I would like to encourage you to invite a Hispanic/Latino/a guest to comment in a substantive way. I’d be happy to comment if asked, particularly from an ecumenical perspective, but I think it is much more important for there to be a Latina/o voice on the show and I know on-air time is limited.

    Latino/as (sometimes now spelled Latin@s) are something like 1/3 of the U.S. Catholic population –one third!– and their numbers continue to grow. (See the Pew report of 2007 et al. There is also a quite significant number of Protestant and Pentecostal Latino/as, and that is part of the Hispanic religious picture too.) There are now two generations of terrific Latina and Latino theologians–and biblical scholars and scholars of religion and pastors– who would be wonderful as guests or commenters; they tend, oddly given the demographics and the excellence of their work, to get overlooked. My colleague Maria Teresa (MT) Dávila, a Latina Catholic professor of ethics at Andover Newton Theological School, noted today in an online conversation how overlooking the demographics doesn’t give us an accurate picture of the relationship between Francis (and the previous pope, and future popes) and the American Catholic Church. There are several Latino and Latina theologians in Boston (besides MT, Nancy Pineda-Madrid of BC comes to mind, Roberto Goizueta at the same school, Robert (Bobby) Rivera at BC and at St. John’s University in NY, Mayra Rivera Rivera at Harvard, and others). I’d be more than happy to help make contact between you and them if that helps. (I’m up late, so feel free to give a holler).

    And perhaps sometime you can do a show on the very diverse Latino/a religious scene in Boston (or in the US with focus on Boston). (I’m talking U.S. Latino/a here, or what the U.S. Census calls “Hispanic,” not Latin American, though of course there are border-crossings and mixings and commonalities involved.)

    This is a vital and exciting area of Catholicism and it places the Papa-Francesco-and-the U.S. conversation in a different perspective from the already fruitful and insightful ones present in the upcoming show. All best to you!

  • Chesire11

    I’m a long time Lydon fan, back from his days on “The Connection,” though I know his broadcasting and journalistic career goes much further back than that. I looked forward with great anticipation to this week’s broadcast, and regret to say how disappointed I was at the discussion. I’m afraid James Carroll makes me cringe in general, and his commentary didn’t disappoint in that respect. Between his sloppy conflation of the preferential option for the poor with Liberation Theology, and his misrepresentation of the survey SOME bishops have been conducting in preparation for the upcoming Synod on the Family as a “democratization” of the Church, to his myopic “Francis is just like us” comments (there are 1.3 billion of us Catholics, I don’t want another one of “us” as Pope, I want a vicar for Christ!) he lived down to my expectations.

    With the exception of Liz Walker, the rest of the contributors left me unimpressed as well. Essentially, the whole show came across as showcase of dissident Catholic views on Francis and the Church, rather than a thoughtful examination of the man from a variety of perspectives, including both dissident voices from liberals and traditionalists, as well as mainstream Catholics and non-Catholics.

    The show should have been MUCH better than that.

  • Potter

    Excellent program last night! All of the guests were great but especially James Carroll and Liz Walker. To my surprise when she said she was reading AJ Heschel, a leading Jewish Rabbi, Theologian (d. 1972) it proved to me once again that we seek light, enlightenment, wherever we think we can find it especially if we are open and searching.

    I am so happy for Catholics firstly. The more recent Popes have been so very disappointing. There were so many Catholics here ( even priests ) that kept on with their faith practicing it in their own way regardless of pronouncements from the Vatican that just did not feel right. I am remembering now Father Drinan, how sad we were to lose him in government.

    So this also proves that people will embrace what they feel in their hearts to be right and true and no Pope has such authority over every Catholic, especially not once a person has been enlightened.

    It was, I remember, with John Paul II way back that we all perked up. We loved him! Not being a Catholic myself, nor a Christian, I do remember his effect on all of us, on the world.

    A Pope has a pulpit like no other and he can say things that no one else can say. It may make a real difference. When terrible things are happening in this world, we wonder where the voice of the Pope is. If we don’t hear him speak up, there is a vacuum. He has to weigh in. A good Pope can be a moral authority for us all, especially by example, but he has to speak as well.

    I am happy also that this Pope is pointing to the deficits of capitalism and focussing on the poor, connected.

    One ongoing criticism I have, especially the orthodox, are repressive views on sex which I think is, at bottom, the reason behind the pedophilia scandals. Also men maintain supremacy over women; women are properly placed in lesser or subservient roles. It’s as though women are being designated spiritually incapable. It’s really a hegemony of men over women that has been changing but very gradually.

    Thank you for this discussion!

  • Potter

    No, I am sorry. Regarding my above post, it was not John Paul II. It was rather Pope John the XXIII of whom we took notice, and who we too loved. And that was longer ago. He died in that awesome year, 1963.