Pope Francis’s superman image


A woman looks at a street art mural showing Pope Francis as a superman, by Italian street artist Maupal, in downtown Naples on March 2, 2014. MARIO LAPORTA/AFP/Getty Images

On the same day that Pope Francis got his own tabloid (a 68-page monthly glossy called Il Mio Papa), the 77-year-old pontiff said he found the Superman image of himself "offensive." As he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview, "the pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends like everyone else — a normal person," he said.

Popes: They're just like us!

Joking aside, there is still irony here. Do Francis's acts of restraint and simplicity, from paying his own hotel bill to opting out of the papal palace, help to make the Church seem more accessible and less hierarchical? Or do these unusual deeds just magnify Pope Francis's uniqueness, reinforcing his star status and lending support to the idea that he's singlehandedly reinventing the way people view the Catholic Church?

Put another way: Can a pope be a revolutionary and an everyman at the same time?

Perhaps, but it won't be easy. It is precisely because Pope Francis has acted so different from his predecessors that the world has fashioned this superhuman image of him. A Pew Research study released Thursday found that more than eight out of 10 Catholics view Francis favorably. More than two-thirds see him as representing a major, and positive, change in the Church's direction, even if his effect on how Catholics approach their faith gets a mixed report. Significant majorities say he is doing a good or excellent job at addressing the needs of the poor and reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.

This is not the first time Pope Francis has addressed his desire to be seen on the same level as others. Last summer, when asked in a news conference about gay clergyman, he said, "Who am I to judge?" It was perhaps his strongest signal — more than washing the feet of a Muslim woman or toting his own carry-on — that he does not view papal leadership as an authoritarian role that dictates doctrine, but one that models the behavior and philosophies he wants others to adopt and believe.

Here's the thing about normalcy: Context matters. Most "normal" men elected to be leader of the Catholic Church would be tempted by the trappings of power and showings of status that Francis has so visibly shunned. Whatever we may wish for in our leaders, it's more natural for a pope to continue with the status quo than to invite controversy by opening the door to changes such as putting women in greater decision-making roles.

In other words, Pope Francis may wish to be viewed as an ordinary man. But as someone who is willing to forego the perks of the job, take on the role of reformer and lead the Church in a new direction, he isn't ordinary. He may not want to be a star. But that attention is precisely why he ultimately may be able to lead change.

Read also:

Pope Francis and the power of five words

Pope Francis on what leadership should look like in the Catholic Church

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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