The August 2015 edition of The National Geographic Magazine features a lengthy article on Pope Francis, written by Robert Draper after six months of observing the life of the Holy Father, featuring photographs by Dave Yoder. Though the article is titled and headlined with one-liners that portray the Pope and Catholic tradition in conflict, the pages themselves tell a different story. Rather than expose a papacy full of dissent, the author gives the world insight into the beautiful person of the Pope, and the human struggles even he must face as he adjusts to being an international figure. Though Pope Francis may be doing things a little differently than his immediate predecessors, he is faithfully Catholic in every way. In spite of a clear desire to depict a trouble-maker in Rome, the author instead found a man who truly lives up to the name he chose, a Pope who wants to renew the Church as the face of love to the world—not a love without morals or caution, but the true love of a parent, who instructs and disciplines when necessary but loves unconditionally.
The Pope’s Early Ripples
Draper’s attempt to sell a radical Pope Francis began with a full description of all the things he did differently in the first months of his reign. He stayed in the Vatican’s guest apartment, rode around in a Ford Focus, chose the simple white robes over the scarlet cape, fell to his knees and asked evangelicals to pray for him, and washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday. He was a radical man with a past history of mixing life up a bit. He tried to ride the buses and walk the poorer streets of Rome like he used to back in Buenos Aires and it seemed those who knew him from South America expected him to stir the comfortable cardinals in the Vatican with his “very stubborn” enforcement of ideas (p. 38).
Yet, in spite of the ripples Pope Francis certainly created during the early months of his papacy, Draper does not seem to be able to find much else to critique. Yes, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of one bishop and reappointed another both involved in the priestly sexual scandals, but of course Draper’s mention of these scandals was neither unexpected nor important (p.57). Towards the end of the article the issue of the Pope’s response to gays came up, but rather than misconstrue his honest answer “Who am I to judge?” Draper augments this response by showing the way Francis responded to a former gay student of his who was hurt by the Pope’s statements on the harmful nature of “gay marriage”, depicting the loving yet unyielding way Pope Francis was sympathetic to his friend’s suffering while not yielding on his position (p.58).
The Pope: Relatable Person
Pope Francis has experienced something during the past couple years that many could never comprehend. He went from being an archbishop in a South American city—loved by many, different in his techniques, but ultimately unknown by a majority—to becoming the Pope of the Catholic Church, an international figure and leader of billions. Over his time in the Vatican, Draper shows the way many of the Pope’s more drastic-seeming decisions were often the result of a man in love with the poor and still trying to reach out to them in the way he used to before he completely realized the way his position both helped and hurt his ability to do so. By being the Pope, it became possible for him to reach more people across the world, but in turn he had to accept that riding city subways and hiding from cameras no longer fit his position. Pope Francis misses some of the perks of his anonymity, but he also is embracing the new joys of leading such a large flock from its center.
Pope Francis is a man, a human, who had his ways and preferences before he became the Pope. To the outside world he may seem sporadic, but to those who help him daily and more intimately, they are beginning to realize he always has a plan, he just does not always share the details before they occur. He has accepted the spotlight and become a loveable figure, posing for pictures and giving in to the careful watch of the Swiss Guards (p. 51). He has also helped more people than ever open their minds to what the Catholic Church is saying by focusing on love rather than rules. The difference between what he is actually doing and how the media portrays him is that he has not forgotten the rules, but rather he is gently enforcing them in a spirit of compassion rather than chastisement.
Pope Francis’s Loving Vision
As the article comes to a close, Draper includes a quote from one of Pope Francis’s friends from Argentina, insisting that Pope Francis “won’t change doctrine” but rather focus on giving the world a vision of the Church that has the human experience of suffering and each man’s relationship with God at the center, rather than man’s corruption and vice (p. 59). Ultimately, Pope Francis is not “remaking” the Vatican, but rather wrapping it up in new paper to use it to give the gift of God’s love to all the world, regardless of which religion people follow. In this modern age where lust reigns over true love, comfort over sacrifice, and acceptance over truth, Pope Francis’s efforts to present the Church to the world as a haven of love and honesty are radical, but not because they forsake doctrine. They are catching attention because many have forgotten that love and truth have always characterized the Catholic Church, it just took a Pope reaching out to people where they are to remind them to look up towards heaven rather than in towards themselves to find their center.
Many will pick up Draper’s article expecting to find the Pope Francis the media claims is forsaking tradition and changing the Church. But instead they will find the story of a human being in love with the common people, focused on reaching out to them through Christ while reminding them to embrace religion as a love affair rather than a list of rules (just as G.K. Chesterton would say St. Francis himself did). Pope Francis is not remaking the Vatican, but he is doing his best to help the Vatican remake the world.
To read the full article pick up a copy of The National Geographic Magazine: August 2015 edition where the article runs from pages 30-59. It can also be read on their website..