The emergence of Pope Francis as a global media superstar is a shocker for the former Time magazine and Fox News Channel reporter who is now a media advisor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
Greg Burke, who became Fox’s Rome correspondent when Pope John Paul II fell ill, noted that Pope Francis had minimal contact with the media in his former capacity as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and head of the Jesuits in Argentina, doing only about half dozen media interviews.
Speaking today at Arthur Page Society spring meeting in New York, Burke conceded that he didn’t know what he was getting into.
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Francis has little formal contact with Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardo, whom he meets two or three times a week.
The Pope’s authenticity and message of compassion and inclusion has registered with the world’s media, but Burke said Francis is just carrying out the role of the traditional parish priest.
Burke pointed out that even at the depth of the Church’s sex abuse scandals, Catholics have rallied around their local priests.
Doing an electronic survey of the audience, Burke showed three questions on global poverty, homosexuality and womens’ role in the Church and asked people to identify which statement came from Francis. The poverty question came out on top.
Burke said each was a statement from Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict.
The quiz results highlighted that Francis and the considered-“stiff” Benedict hold very similar views of the teachings of the Church.
But it’s the feel-good gestures of Francis, who embraces the deformed, washes the feet of juvenile prisoners and kisses babies, rocket around the globe via social media making it “cool to be a Catholic.”
Burke said 15 years ago it wasn’t acceptable to kiss the Pope. “Everybody wants to kiss Francis,” joked Burke.
He isn’t sure what overall impact the 77-year-old Pope will have on the Church. He’s a transitional figure, who will preside over the institution’s shift from a European (mainly Italian) leadership to one headed by members of he global south.
In Burke’s view, Francis’ ultimate success hinges on whether he persuades more Catholics to be like him.
Though portrayed as a media star, Francis spends the vast bulk of his day in prayer and meditation.
He’s also like any other 77-year old, shuffling down the aisle of Church, falling asleep during prayer or misplacing his rosary beads, according to Burke.
He predicts the Vatican’s media honeymoon will end only when Francis’ message begins to make people feel uncomfortable.