In homilies and speeches in the months since assuming the Seat of Saint Peter, Pope Francis has demonstrated his simple style applies not only to his dress and living accommodations –but to the words he uses to share the faith. A few recent examples:
Eternity “will not be boring.”
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’
Even the atheists. Everyone!”
“Think about a single mother who goes to church, in the parish and to the secretary she says: ‘I want my child baptized’. And then this Christian, this Christian says: ‘No, you cannot because you’re not married!’. But look, this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy and not to return her son to the sender, what is it? A closed door! This is not zeal! It is far from the Lord!”
“If the investments in the banks fall slightly [it is] a tragedy what can be done? But if people die of hunger, if they have nothing to eat, if they have poor health, it does not matter! This is our crisis today!”
In contrast to the richly theological style of Pope Benedict, Pope Francis seems a pope made for the age of tweets. His “simple, direct language,” (as described by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper) is making the sometimes-mystical leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics veritably meme-worthy. And that is raising eyebrows across the religious spectrum.
So what happens when religious complexity meets witty one-liners online?
Consider Pope Francis’ comments about atheists on May 22. Much of the information about Francis’ statements comes from the Vatican’s news Web site, news.va, which typically synthesizes the pope’s homilies with translated (the pope gives homilies in Italian) select quotes rather than posting the speeches in their entirety. So when the Vatican released a sermon summary that said that Jesus had redeemed “even the atheists,” many took note. Some pointed out the problem of using snippets of a speech to prove a broader point. The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who runs a popular blog from a conservative Catholic viewpoint, noted that “we never get what the pope actually said in its entirety,” and clarified Catholic teaching on the possibility of heaven for non-Christians. The site Reddit, which hosts a robust atheist forum, blew up with the news. Atheist bloggers, who — um, don’t believe in heaven — were nonetheless grateful for the implied message that nonbelievers who do good will be rewarded. The Vatican later clarified Francis’ statements, reminding the public of its teaching that yes, Jesus died for all but you do need to believe in order to get into heaven.
The papal quips continue.
While the online marketplace of ideas gives the Catholic Church a new stage on which to preach, the question of how to teach the faith to the masses without watering down the message is as old as religion itself. With his made-for-meme style, Pope Francis just seems to have entered a new digital frontier.
Image courtesy of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.