New Pope Shows Eye for Symbolism

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MASSIMO PERCOSSI / EPA

Pope Francis holds an audience at the Paul VI Audience Hall, in Vatican City, on March 16, 2013

As a Cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t always have the smoothest relations with the press. Said to be shy, he gave few interviews, preferring to address his congregation directly. Journalists in his native Argentina accused him of silent complicity during the country’s so-called Dirty War — charges he denounces as “slander.” In an interview with La Stampa’s Vatican Insider shortly before his election to the papacy, Bergoglio bemoaned the media’s focus on negativity and scandal. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia,” he said then. Yet when he addressed a group of several thousand journalists and their families on Saturday as Pope Francis, he opened with the words, “My dear friends.”

Seated on a chair on stage in an audience hall next to St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope was greeted by the assembled journalists with applause and a few cries of “Viva.” Whether performing mass or giving an address, Francis’ speaking style is more like that of an actor than a preacher: his tone is intimate, with touches of humor and folksiness, but he never loses command of his audience. In his delivery, if there’s a politician he resembles, it’s Ronald Reagan. During one passage in his address thanking the media for their “service” covering the conclave, Francis broke from the text, looked up and said with a smile: “You’ve worked, eh? You’ve really worked.”

(MORE: The New Pope and Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’ of the Dirty War)

There’s every indication that the new Pope knows how to work the media himself. When, a few days after the election, questions about his role during Argentina’s bloody military dictatorship threatened to derail the narrative of renewal, the Vatican responded with uncharacteristic speed and force, releasing a statement that described the accusations as slanderous, defamatory and motivated by leftist anticlericalism. “That was his first communications crisis, his first bump in the road,” says Dennis Redmont, a professor of international media at the University of Perugia in Rome, who covered three papacies as a journalist for the Associated Press. “When someone makes an accusation, it dangles. And in the age of social media, if you let it dangle, you’re dead. It’s important to handle these things quickly.”

Since the first moments of his papacy, Francis has made deft use of symbolism. After his election in the Sistine Chapel, he declined to sit on the papal throne, choosing to stand to receive the traditional homage from the men who were until moments before his fellow Cardinals. On the trip back from the chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica, he chose to ride the bus with the Cardinals with whom he had come, rather than take the papal car. When he appeared on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, he wasn’t wearing the red papal cape or the customary golden cross, but a simple white cassock and the iron crucifix from his days as bishop. Before offering his blessing, he asked the crowd for theirs and bowed his head to receive it. The next day, after praying at St. Mary Major Basilica in central Rome, he stopped by the hotel where he had been staying before the conclave and paid the bill himself. He made the trip without a motorcade. “He’s using a car you or I would use,” says Greg Burke, a senior communications adviser at the Vatican. “In these few days, every symbol, every gesture has been, ‘I’m here as a servant among you.’ And people find that incredibly appealing.”

(PHOTOS: Pope and Circumstance: The Road to the Papacy)

Every Pope becomes to some extent a living symbol, an embodiment of the hopes and prayers of millions of Catholics. But unlike his predecessor Joseph Ratzinger, who resigned from the papacy in February, Francis shows the potential to become a symbol that resonates. “I think he’ll be less Ratzinger and more Dalai Lama,” says Redmont.

The Pope’s most potent gesture so far may be his choice of a name. And on that subject, Francis gave the assembled journalists what they most desperately wanted: a piece of news, recounting the final minutes of the conclave. During the voting, Bergoglio had been sitting next to one of his closest friends among the collected Cardinals, Cláudio Hummes, the former Archbishop of São Paulo. In the moments after it became clear that Bergoglio would become Pope, while the votes were still being counted, Hummes hugged him, kissed him and told him, “Don’t forget the poor.” “And those words entered here,” Francis told his audience of journalists, pointing to his forehead. “The poor, the poor. And then, right away, in relation to the poor I thought of Francis of Assisi.” The saint, he explained, was a man of peace who was committed to the poor. “Ah, how I’d like a poor church, [one that's] for the poor,” he concluded. The journalists answered his words with applause.

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