John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Social Media Rock Star Pope Francis Brings Hope to the Catholic Church

Posted on November 8, 2013
Pope Francis

I was on the elliptical machine this morning, at the gym, watching a bank of television screens.

You have a choice of 6 television screens as you build up a sweat at my gym.   You get the local news, ESPN, a music channel, MSNBC, Fox and CNN.   And I usually hop between channels, trying to watch one that will distract me from the pain of pumping on the machine.

Pope Francis won the battle of the television screens this morning.   When his visage appeared on one of the televisions, I immediately changed the channel from the music video to the Pope.

The reason is simple.  He is interesting.   And inspirational.

You never quite know what Pope Francis is going to do or going to say.  He is unpredictable.  And it is breathtaking.

Francis has made some orthodox Catholics nervous, which is perfectly fine with me.  He made some Southern Baptists nervous too, which gives me great joy.

By his actions and his words, the Pope has demonstrated to the world that he gets it.  He gets what we need from a spiritual leader.  He understands his mission in the world.  And he is happy about it.

When you see Francis hug a diseased man, or pat a child on the head as he gives a major address, or wash the feet of women, you get the sense that he loves giving some love back to the world.  You can tell that he is full of joy and that he wants to spread that joy.

His message is simple and it is inspirational.

The Catholic Church has had its fair share of bad press in the last 20 years, some of it deserved and some of it piling on by a hostile press.  The sex scandals have been terrible, the Vatican bank corruption has stunk, and since Vatican II, the Church has slowly but surely lost its mojo in America.

John Paul II helped to revive the Church’s reputation, especially as he worked with President Reagan to overthrow Communism in his native land of Poland.  But the Benedict years were pretty rough, and the church has endured a crisis of confidence.

The Church faces a bigger sociological challenge too.  It didn’t necessarily fit in the zeitgeist of American society.

We live now in a 140-character world.

Americans like simple stories.   They don’t particularly love complexity.

But the Catholic Church is all about complexity.  For Catholics, it is the mystery of faith.   The Church has a rich and deep history, a stylized and deeply symbolic set of rituals, and an intellectual tradition that is the basis and foundation of Western Civilization.

Sadly, many Americans don’t take the time to understand all of that.  And the Church has lost ground to Evangelical Churches that offer a more simple, and in many ways , more gratifying message.  You come with us, and you will be saved, and not only will you be saved, you will be prosperous.

The prosperity gospel, for a capitalist society like America, can be very seductive.

But the big Evangelical Churches offer something else.  They offer a community with an easy entry.  You can sit it their big auditoriums, listen to fun music, hear an entertaining sermon, and you don’t have to go through all of the rituals.  You can belong immediately, with no money down.  All you have to do is find yourself saved, and voila, you are part of big team.

The Catholic Church isn’t nearly as welcoming.   At the beginning of communion, they usually give you a little speech about how non-Catholics are not supposed to eat the bread or drink the wine, and that can be really annoying for those who aren’t part of the Church.

To become a Catholic is a pretty big time commitment.  You actually have to learn about the faith, go through a process, take classes and do the sacraments.

The Catholic Church was especially strong when Catholics lived in the major cities and stayed there.  The Church seemed to fray when Catholics moved out to the suburbs and intermingled with non-Catholics,  when they decided to send their kids to public schools, and when the Church became a less important focal point for their social activities.

My mom and dad would tell me back in the day, when the Church would host dances for the teenagers and field sports teams, and when the idea of marrying a non-Catholic would never, ever cross their minds.  My dad used to joke that he had never met a Protestant until he went in the Army.

When America moved to the Suburbs, the Catholic Church wasn’t as good at reinventing itself in the more diverse and more dispersed world of suburbia.

But there is still a need for strong communities, even in the suburbs.   Retreating behind the castle walls, watching big screen televisions and interacting with far-flung and sometime brand-new friends through the wonders of Facebook and Twitter, is no substitute for personal interaction.

That is where the mega-churches get it right and why so many of them have sprung up in shopping Malls and in huge Vacant lots, preaching good fellowship, prosperity and some good-old fashioned Bible beating, shorn of the confusing rituals, the constant standing and sitting, the crossing and genuflecting.

The Catholic Church, if it wants to compete with the Evangelicals, doesn’t have to offer the same kind of religious experience.  It has to offer what it has always offered, a sense of a community with a mission, a sense of belonging to something real, something important, something eternal, and something special.

What Pope Francis offers is a welcoming hand instead of a stern finger.  He offers hope instead of damnation, love instead of judgment, and optimism instead hand-wringing.

The trick for the Church is to figure out ways to communicate the mystery of faith simply.  And to do it to a broader audience than just fellow Catholics.

Francis seems to do that very well.  He is a social media rock star, hitting the right notes on all of the latest channels, challenging conventional wisdom without challenging long-held Church doctrine.

His latest inspiration is to conduct a world-wide poll of Catholics, to figure out what they are thinking, what their concerns are and what they really want from their Church.  How disruptive for a Pope to ask the laity for their opinions on how the Church is run.   And revolutionary.

For the American Church, which is much more accustomed to telling people in authority what they really think, this should come as no surprise, but it is shocking nonetheless.  It shows a Church hierarchy that wants to be more responsive to needs to its flock, and it is long overdue.

I am inspired by this Pope.  He has it right.  Any time I see him on television, I will stop, look and listen.  Even if I am on the treadmill.