Election of the Pope: Critic's Notebook

Pope Francis I Balcony - H 2013
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Pope Francis I Balcony - H 2013

A surreal Roman holiday from the usual news cycle.

Cable news went all out in its coverage of the papal election, trumpeting the number of historic firsts represented by the appointment of Pope Francis.

Habemus Papam. And habemus a whole lot of feverish airtime.

Lavishing the kind of attention on the papal appointment usually reserved for national presidential elections, cable news channels broke in on scheduled programming Wednesday to switch to saturation coverage of events at Vatican City. From the moment the white plume of smoke was spotted over Saint Peter’s Basilica, signaling the successful election of a Pope after an unexpectedly swift two-day conclave, it was all Rome, all the time.

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Intensive coverage of the Roman Catholic Church from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and their brethren is more often generated by sexual abuse scandals or financial accountability issues. But the “joy and excitement” breathlessly described by Anderson Cooper on the ground in Piazza San Pietro can partly be attributed to the fact that cable news loves a contest. With two American archbishops – Timothy Dolan of New York and Sean O’Malley of Boston – among the candidates under serious consideration for the first time, there was a rooting interest.

In the past week the Vatican chimney has become the biggest media fixation since Kim Kardashian’s baby bump. With its insatiable appetite for cutting-edge graphics, CNN even cooked up a virtual St. Peter’s. And let’s not forget the authoritative voice of Dennis Rodman, all over news outlets in the runup announcing his call for a black Pope.

Newsrooms positively were aflutter as they waited out the half-hour or so between the smoke signal and the ceremonial announcement, from a balcony overlooking the square, of the new Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Unlike the Olympics, however, where a failed American victory spells instant deflation, the pundits remained invested, switching their focus to the number of firsts this appointment represented: First non-European pontiff. First Jesuit pope. First pope from Latin America. Reluctant to relinquish its nationalistic stake in the race, Fox News quickly amended its news band to read “First Pope from the Americas.”

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The other big first is the first freshly minted papal moniker since the 10th century. Departing from the usual name book – John Paul, Clement, Innocent, Benedict, etc. – Bergoglio will be Pope Francis, a significant choice given the iconic status in Catholicism of St. Francis of Assisi, venerated for his vow of poverty.

Humility and simplicity were the keynotes of the new pope’s debut appearance. Like a gracious Oscar winner acknowledging the also-rans, his first prayer was for his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, who took the almost unprecedented step of retiring in February. His second was a prayer to the people, beseeching them to pray for him in return.

Newsrooms quickly jumped on the thread that this was “Il Papa del Popolo,” or Pope of the People. Bergoglio’s preference for a modest existence is well established. He declined to live in the official Church mansion during his tenure in the top religious job in Buenos Aires, also refusing the luxuries that go with it such as a limo driver and a personal chef. Instead he lived in a downtown apartment, cooked his own meals and rode the bus to work. Welcome, Pope Everyman.

And cable news also loves an underdog. Francis has the distinction of being a comeback kid, albeit one who’s 76 years old. He was a runner-up for the office in 2005, when Benedict XVI was appointed. Fox News even indulged in some wrestling-speak: “Seven years ago he was the main challenger. Now he’s the No. 1!” Several commentators noted that Bergoglio was not among frontrunners in the papal sweepstakes this time, and that the voting body of 115 cardinals had been expected to go for a younger man.

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As news cameras insistently sought out every vaguely Latino-looking face they could find in the crowd flooding St. Peter’s Square following the announcement, analysts agreed that Bergoglio was a smart choice in a crucial period for the international revitalization of the Roman Catholic faith. According to reports, more than 40 percent of the world’s Catholics are in Latin America, making Spanish the religion’s top language, and some 35 percent of the estimated 75 million Catholics in the U.S. are of Latino origin.

Speculating on the challenges facing this pope in terms of uniting the world’s Catholic Church, particularly in Europe where religion has undergone a major loss of traction, the pundits were hesitant to go out on a limb. Most observed that while Bergoglio has a track record as a liberal on socioeconomics, he has been staunchly conservative on hot-button religious issues such as homosexuality, contraception, abortion and the ordination of women.

Across the cable networks, the widespread hope was voiced that this pontiff will be a more media-savvy, charismatic figurehead than his dour predecessor. One question that news commentators were unable to answer in on-the-spot coverage, however, concerned his command of English. But Bergoglio does speak strong Italian (his father was one of Argentina’s huge population of Italian immigrants), as evidenced by the warm familiarity of his inaugural address to the crowd gathered at St. Peters. “Buona notte e buon riposo,” was his sign-off, wishing the flock good-night and good rest.

Speaking as someone who lived in that Roman neighborhood for many years and heard as much Polish and German as Italian being spoken during the tenure of previous popes, I think it’s safe to assume that Spanish is about to become lingua franca in the Eternal City. Watch for those floundering pizzerias to be made over into Argentinian steakhouses. Viva il Papa, and slice me a piece of that carne asada.