Viewpoint: Francis and the cult of celebrity


One year ago in Rome, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio called his local newsstand in Argentina to cancel his subscription to a daily paper. He had been elected pope, and his reading material at the Vatican would change.

That phone call became an example of the pope’s modest personality and gave his former newsstand a long “15 minutes” of fame.

But recently, Daniel del Regno, the son of the Argentinean newspaper vendor, told Catholic News Service that his father’s little stand has been visited by a stampede by tourists. A year after the phone call, the news dealers are exasperated by the attention and refuse to allow photos to be taken.

Balloons are seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 19. (CNS photo)

Even Pope Francis now expresses some frustration at the celebrity-style coverage of him as a “personality.” Now, it includes a magazine, Il Mio Papa (My Pope), from an Italian publishing house that specializes in TV listings and celebrity gossip.

The pope told an Italian daily paper that he doesn’t like being depicted as a “superpope,” who leaves the Vatican at night to feed the hungry on the streets. “That’s never occurred to me,” he said.

“If I’m not mistaken, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there’s an aggression. Depicting the pope as a sort of Superman, a star, is offensive to me,” the pope added.

“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone else,” Francis said.

OK. The pope is a normal man who lives in extraordinary circumstances, such as addressing thousands of people each week from a window, from a pulpit and from the chair of Peter from which his words are instantly news around the world.

As a Catholic newspaper editor, I’ve engaged in featuring the activities and teachings of every pontiff since Pope Paul VI.

And yes, the cult of personality can be found in Catholic newspapers’ coverage of popes and bishops. It extends throughout the church, from the papal portraits displayed in parishes to the two-page spread about Francis’ first year as pope in The Dialog’s March 7 issue.

But any pope’s actions are part of the definition of Catholic news. And part of the news media’s attraction to the Catholic Church is our unity around a pope, our attention to the successor of Peter and every pontiff’s constant proclamation of Jesus Christ.

There’s something in our faith, in the lessons of incarnation and redemption, in every pope’s insistence that life isn’t about money and pleasure that persuades the secular media that attention must be paid.

Although fan-magazine coverage of the pope can be an annoyance, it can draw people into a deeper understanding of the faith because every pope in a white cassock has always preached the Good News by pointing to Jesus on the cross.

Each pope in his time is the proprietor of a Good News stand at the Vatican, where subscriptions will never be canceled and deliverance from sin is guaranteed through the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


Ryan is editor/general manager of The Dialog.