Pope Francis: It’s a manner of communicating my ministry

The last few months have witnessed another flurry of interviews by Pope Francis with secular and Catholic media outlets, the release of several more books on the Pope, and even the publication of a memoir by the Pontiff, under the title, Life, My Story Through History.

May 31, 2024

Pope Francis sits down with ‘CBS Evening News’ anchor Norah O’Donnell at the Vatican April 24, 2024, for an in-depth interview aired on 20 May. (OSV photo/Adam Verdugo, courtesy, 60 minutes, CBS NEWS)

By Matthew Bunson
The last few months have witnessed another flurry of interviews by Pope Francis with secular and Catholic media outlets, the release of several more books on the Pope, and even the publication of a memoir by the Pontiff, under the title, Life, My Story Through History. The media blitz by the Pope — including his freshly aired interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes — is part of a consistent pattern by the modern popes in the use of social communications and media outreach. Pope Francis, however, is unique in his deliberate and aggressive embrace of interviews for television, radio, newspapers and magazines. So commonplace are the interviews and publications that they are undeniably part of a deliberate personal communications strategy tied to his wider leadership style and his programme of reform for the Church.

Popes and the Secular Press
For most of Church history, the popes were important but distant figures, even to average Catholics across the globe. That began to change, of course, with the emergence of modern media. Pope Blessed Pius IX was the first pope to be photographed, in 1862, and Leo XIII holds the distinction of being the first pontiff to be filmed by a motion picture camera in 1896 and to have his voice recorded. Four years before that, Leo became the first pope to grant an interview to a secular journalist, Caroline Rémy de Guebhard, who wrote under the nom de plume of Séverine. The interview was published in Le Figaro and caused a bit of a stir, if for no other reason than the journalist was a famous socialist and atheist.

In keeping with his programme of aggiornamento and the subsequent call of the Second Vatican Council to utilise all the means of communications for the good of the Church, Pope St John XXIII made the watershed decision in 1959 to do an interview with the secular Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. He chose a secular paper specifically to reach beyond the Catholic world.

Corriere della Sera was again the newspaper of choice in 1965 when Pope St Paul VI — poised to close the Second Vatican Council — spoke with the Italian Vaticanista Alberto Cavallari about the crisis of faith in the world. Paul VI was later featured in a long-forgotten April 1977 New York Times profile, “A Day in the Life of the Pope,” which followed the packed schedule for the already-frail 79-year-old Pontiff, who would die the next year.

Pope St John Paul II carried forward the legacy of papal media outreach in a significant but very specific way throughout his 25-year pontificate. He gave interviews from time to time (such as one to La Stampa in 1993); sanctioned what is considered the greatest papal biography of all time, George Weigel’s Witness to Hope; and collaborated with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori on the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, which was the result of a failed idea to do a television interview to mark the 15th anniversary of his papacy. It was a huge bestseller and was translated into 40 languages.

He also christened the in-flight papal press conference and made immense strides in developing the Vatican’s Communications Office and the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, what is now the Dicastery for Communication. But John Paul II relied less on interviews with secular outlets and more on his unprecedented global travels to 129 countries, where he spoke directly to the faithful and to the media. He shaped public opinion by the power of the images and his impressive presence both as the leader of the Church and as a head of state.

Pope Benedict XVI — always a shy and scholarly figure — nevertheless understood the power of media. He coined the term “digital continent” as a new environment for evangelisation, but his forays into media were centred in book-length interviews, especially with Peter Seewald, and the papal in-flight pressers, which were themselves not without controversy.

Francis Speaks for Himself
Pope Francis inherited a well-developed communications structure, but he preferred from the very beginning of his pontificate to make outreach to secular media his personal purview. Francis uses secular interviews — sprinkled with interviews with perceived friendly Catholic outlets — as a centrepiece of his papal communications strategy. He speaks for himself and rarely through the filter of the Vatican communications apparatus. It is estimated that in the last decade, he has given well more than 100 interviews or pressers, most of them to secular publications. His style in interviews is earthy and blunt, filled with maxims and pithy phrases and a loose attention to theological precision. It has made him extremely quotable and popular with interviewers, but the approach is not without risks. His off-the-cuff remarks can create challenges for himself and Vatican communications. Confusion abounded, for example, about what Francis supposedly said about the existence of hell in his interviews with the late Italian atheist editor of La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari, who reconstructed the conversations with the Pope entirely from memory.

The Vatican has been forced to issue clarifications on several other occasions after interviews. More recently, he infuriated the Ukrainians by suggesting that Ukraine should waive the “white flag” and negotiate a settlement with its Russian invaders. The Vatican tried to clarify what Francis meant, but the damage was done.

These are risks he is willing to take, however. In the preface to the interview book Now Ask Your Questions, in 2021, Francis said that interviews for him are a dialogue, not a lesson, that he does not prepare for them and declines to look at questions ahead of time. He knows that he might be misinterpreted, but he is determined it is the way forward for him. “Everything that I do has pastoral value, in one way or another,” he wrote. “If I did not trust this, I would not allow interviews: For me, it is clear. It’s a manner of communicating my ministry.”

And that direct personal communication style possesses a greater structure and intent than might meet the eye. It allows him to shape the messaging very directly, especially now at what he sees is a critical crossroad for his legacy and his vision of a synodal Church and when resistance seems particularly pointed.

This brings us to his interview on May 19 with the CBS programme 60 Minutes. The interview is a classic example of the communications strategy in play. A sycophantic reporter, in this case Norah O’Donnell, asks unchallenging and less-than-hard-hitting questions, providing him the opportunity to give a sharp rebuke to those he sees are hostage to ideologies and opposing his project of reform.

“You use the adjective ‘conservatives,’” he says. “That is to say, a conservative is one who sticks to something and does not want to see anything else. It is a suicidal attitude.”

Like several other criticisms of so-called conservative critics in the United States, Pope Francis’ remarks went viral, and the Pontiff certainly understands that CBS provides him a very large platform and an opportunity to speak directly and pointedly to the American audience.

He also made the most of O’Donnell’s softball questions on subjects the Holy Father has stressed throughout his pontificate: immigration, peace, being a welcoming Church to sinners and his own claims of continuity with his predecessors. These are all equally on display in two books published almost simultaneously this year — his autobiography and his reflections on his election and that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict. In the first, he recounts his life through the major events of the 20th century. Along the way, he provides valuable insights into his childhood, ordination and service as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal. But each chapter also connects his life and his experiences directly to key elements of his program — immigration, fighting ideologies, fraternity, and opposition to his reforms.

In the second, the interview book El Sucesor: Mis Recuerdos de Benedicto XVI (The Successor: My Memories of Benedict XVI) with Spanish journalist Javier Martínez-Brocal reveals details from Francis’ perspective of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict and his relationship with the late Pope. He is shaping opinion about the conclaves that went before him but also blunting criticism that he somehow seeks a rupture in continuity with his predecessors.

As loose as his style might appear, the interviews are not random, nor are the points he makes. And where Francis may seem repetitive — witness the frequent recourse to what he describes in Italian as indietrismo, which translates into English as “backwardness” or “looking backward” — he is making the same points across different platforms, languages and audiences. It is a strategic positioning to maximise his messaging.

Francis has forged his own path in communication and in governance. He is trying to shape how the world perceives him, how his reforms are received and implemented and how permanent his programme for the Church will be. He unquestionably stands in continuity with the modern popes in his embrace of the media, but he is unprecedented in the way he goes about it. How effective this strategy proves in the long-term will depend significantly on his successors but also, ironically, on the very media — Catholic and secular — he has tried to influence. -- Register

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