Vincentian Bishop on the “Francis Effect” – Christina Leslie writes a report in the Trenton Monitor about a presentation by Bishop David O’Connell, CM in Monmouth University Nov. 6
Bishop O’Connell noted the important influence of the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in both the Church and the world at large during a speech entitled “The Francis Effect,” delivered during the West Long Branch university’s Symposium on Religion in Public Life and hosted by the Department of Philosophy, Religion and Interdisciplinary Studies. The Bishop set his analysis of the 20-month papacy of the world’s 266th Pope within the context of that of his two predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“Some say during the 27-year papacy of John Paul II, he told us what to do, that Benedict XVI told us why we should do it, and Pope Francis, to borrow a phrase from Nike, to just do it,” Bishop O’Connell stated. “There is a big temptation to take any of Francis’ words just at face value or divorce them from context when he goes ‘off script’ and talks extemporaneously.”
The Bishop recalled Popes John Paul II and Benedict as great philosophers with speeches and writings issued by the Vatican rather than at press conferences. “Francis has a very different style, he’s not accustomed to writing things down,” he continued. “But just because the popes differ in style does not mean there is a difference in substance.”
Claiming Pope Francis has “taken the world by storm,” Bishop O’Connell noted his 85 percent approval rating amongst the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and the 63 percent rating with the United States’ approximately 67 million Catholics which comprise 23 percent of the population. “There’s no question that Francis is a popular guy,” the Bishop quipped. “I credit Francis’ style of being the Pope for that popularity and recognition… It’s not what you say in positions of leadership, but how you say it.”
Bishop O’Connell reminded the audience of university staff, students and visitors that Pope Francis’ demeanor is “simpler, humbler, softer in tone” than his most recent predecessors, and “more of a listener open to dialogue rather than pronouncement.” Popes John Paul II and Benedict were of European background, had lived through the impacts of World War II and participated in the Second Vatican Council. Moreover, they both became bishops at an early age, John Paul II at 38 and Benedict at 49.
“Francis was the first non-European pope elected in 1,300 years. He was ordained a priest the year I entered the seminary  and was made a bishop at age 56,” Bishop O’Connell said. “He was never a diocesan priest but instead a member of an order, the first such pope in 160 years.”
“John Paul II was a poet, an actor, a philosopher and an academic. Benedict was a musician and an academic,” the Bishop continued, “while Francis was a chemical technician and an academic. If you put it all together, Pope Francis had different experiences from these two.”
Bishop O’Connell shared his personal reflections from his meetings with all three pontiffs. “I met John Paul twice; when I met him I was moved to tears,” he said. “I met Benedict many times and hosted him at The Catholic University of America in 2008 [while Bishop O’Connell served as president.] Pope John Paul knew the impact of his presence, while Benedict was scholarly and intense, friendly and reserved.”
He continued with recollections of his stay in the residence of Pope Francis during a December 2013 pilgrimage, noting, “Francis is a little reserved, very intense, very simple, warm and gracious, but does not speak English easily. He is unassuming, with no fanfare, and takes his meals buffet style with the rest in his residence. But in front of a crowd, he is a warm, different person, almost grandfatherly; he draws you to him.”
As the head of the Catholic Church in the world, Pope Francis’ words and deeds are important, whether official or extemporaneous, the Bishop asserted. “The Pope teaches by what he says and what he does. Exhortations and encyclicals are meant to shape Catholic teaching, but his gestures also have meaning.” The Bishop recalled the new Pope’s refusal to dress in traditional papal vestments when he first stepped out onto the balcony of the Vatican and his request to the people for their prayers rather than offer his own.
“His words and gestures are a prism through which we can look at him. They are the direction of the papacy and the direction of the Church. No matter how you judge what he says or does,” Bishop O’Connell said, “he is not a man to be ignored.”
The Bishop also referenced the seeming controversies arising from last month’s Extraordinary Synod on the family and the Pope’s comments on homosexuality and the reception of Communion by divorced persons. He asserted, “I believe that sometimes the media hijacks these things, sensationalizes rather than evangelizes. [Pope] Francis did much more listening than talking at the synod. At the end of the day, there were no changes in teaching and doctrine of the Church, not one.”
“The ‘Francis effect’ does exist and has made a difference, but the proof is in the pudding,” he concluded. “Early in his papacy, there is no question: Francis is a superstar. Only time will tell what the true ‘Francis Effect’ will be.”