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"Dear Lord,
May we always be mindful of your teaching: Love God & love your neighbour."

Pope Francis as media role model

Thank you for your feedback regarding last week’s conversation ‘Expectations’. You can still join the discussion on our blog. Over the next few weeks, consideration will be given to developing our own set of expectations.

In this week’s Conversation, we look at the power of genuine and heartfelt expression, as evidenced by Pope Francis.

Pope Francis as media role model.

From, 4th Feb 15, By Andrew Hamilton SJ.

Pope Francis 2

The travails of Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott have focused attention on how public leaders engage with their public. Most advice suggests that they should be more controlled and less quirky in their actions and totally on message in their words. A darker shade of grey.

In this climate they might go to school on Pope Francis whose approval ratings are off the scales. He famously engages with the public through symbolic gestures that embody his program, such as moving out of the Vatican palace and washing Muslim women’s feet in a jail.

For politicians his most interesting symbol might be the press conferences and interviews he gives. The interviews are uncontrolled: questions are not vetted beforehand: the journalists are not simply from church but also from secular media; He does not prepare for them with his media minders. Nor does he put a time-limit on them. And in his answers he is personal, anecdotal and colloquial, going beyond the language of Catholic theology to find words that his audience will resonate with.

Political advisers, including those in the Catholic Church, normally advise political leaders strongly against such uncontrolled press conferences. They inevitably lead to misunderstandings and to partial representations. Journalists will highlight the spiciest phrases taken out of context, will focus on apparent inconsistencies with the party platform, and will identify gaffes. Then they will gather divergent opinions within the party, so contradicting the appearance of unity, sobriety and solidity. The result is the impression of incompetence, disunity and arbitrariness. That is why most leaders and parties avoid uncontrolled interviews, plan what issues they will address regardless of the questions asked, and always stay on-message.

The critics, of course, are right. All these things happen to Pope Francis. But they do not deter him. He simply addresses matters on which his views have been misrepresented, affirms his acceptance of recent Papal teaching, expresses trust in open expression of opinion and keeps giving press conferences.

His way of proceeding is not simply a personal strategy but embodies his vision of the Catholic Church. In an open press conference Pope Francis goes out beyond the church, speaks informally as himself and so is vulnerable. The press conference is inherently democratic in its style, is exploratory rather than declaratory, and sees truth as something to be sought together, not simply handed down.

These qualities enact his vision of how the Catholic Church should be present in the world, and of how leadership should be exercised in the church. The mission of the Catholic Church, and particularly of its teachers and pastors, is to go out vulnerably into the world and to let the power and joy of the Gospel be seen there. This requires the trust that when people explore the implications of faith together the Spirit will make the truth attractive.

For any leader sensitivity to symbols is a great gift. It enables others to see and feel, not simply to hear, what the leader’s vision and strategies are. But acting symbolically is also challenging. Pope Francis has been much admired because his symbolic actions as Pope express so seamlessly his inner self.

He is transparent. His simplicity of life, his constant reaching out to people who are disadvantaged, his telephoning people who write to him, his criticism of economic systems that put wealth and not persons first, his lack of concern for his personal security, shown most recently in his insistence against advice to fly to the typhoon stricken communities in the Philippines and his matter of fact acceptance of church doctrine, all reflect the adamantine link between who he is as a human being and what his program is for the Catholic Church. He has nothing to fear from open press conferences because nothing is hidden.

But his example also suggests why few of us, and therefore few church or secular leaders, would unhesitatingly follow the pope’s example of open press conferences. In our case there is too large a gap between reality and appearances.

So when leaders of our political parties declare their intention to govern for the good of all Australians or all Queenslanders, but then pursue policies that are manifestly unfair to the poor and weaken the bonds of compassion that hold communities together, they cannot afford to be publicly vulnerable. They must rely on spin to sell their policies. Ordinary people sense this, of course, and refuse to listen. They long for integrity and recognise it in the most unlikely places. Even in a Pope.

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