Renowned journalist John Allen discusses ‘Francis effect’ at TCU Catholic Community-sponsored event

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

May 14, 2014

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Renowned Vatican journalist John L. Allen, Jr., addresses an audience of students, academics, and both Catholic and non-Catholic admirers of the Holy Father April 22, to discuss Pope Francis’ impact on the world since the beginning of his pontificate. Allen was invited by the TCU Catholic Community and the school’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life for the annual Faith Acts Footsteps Lecture.

How do you describe a man with 12 million Twitter followers who graced the pages of both Time and Rolling Stone magazines and enjoys a 90 percent approval rating with American Catholics?

Seasoned Vatican journalist John Allen, Jr., didn’t spare the hyperbole while discussing Pope Francis and the impact he’s having on popular culture, the media, and the Church. Addressing a Texas Christian University audience April 22, the CNN analyst and author told listeners when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope March 13, 2013, “he burst like a supernova on the global scene and captured the imagination of the world.”

Invited to give the Annual Faith Acts Footsteps Lecture by the TCU Catholic Community and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, Allen said Pope Francis is experiencing the same appeal and “unquestioned moral authority” given the late Nelson Mandela.

“This is a pope, who in a very short amount of time, projected himself into the media with a unique profile and has changed the regime of ecclesial culture,” he added. “His personal gestures of humility and simplicity won hearts and minds all over the world.”

Allen, who established the Rome-based office of the National Catholic Reporter in 2000, has reported on three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. The Vatican insider is currently an associate editor of the Boston Globe specializing in Catholic news.

During his animated and sometimes humorous presentation, the speaker regaled the crowd with anecdotes and little known facts about the new pontiff.

After Cardinal Bergoglio ascended to the papacy, Allen traveled to the Argentinean’s Archdiocese of Buenos Aires to see if stories about his ministry as the “bishop of the slums” were true. He visited the two-room, spartan apartment where the cardinal once lived among the city’s poor. Walking down the street, the reporter spoke at random with residents of the impoverished neighborhood.

“I asked them, what can you tell me about Bergoglio?” he explained.

The inquiry sent people scurrying into their makeshift homes to find treasured photos of the prelate baptizing their children or consoling a grieving widow in her living room.

“That’s where he spent his time and that’s who he was,” Allen continued.

The gestures of the newly elected Pope Francis paying his own hotel bill and riding the bus instead of traveling in a chauffeured limo were authentic.

“Those were not faux public relations exercises,” he insisted. “They were true to the personality and biography of the man.”

But Allen suggests there is more to Pope Francis than a compassionate public image. Beneath his humble, simple exterior lies the mind of an incredible savvy and crafty Jesuit politician who is intentionally recrafting expectations of what Church leadership should be.

“When the wider world looks at the symbols of authority in the Catholic Church — when they look at pectoral crosses and Roman collars — he wants them to think not of power and privilege, but service,” the speaker said resolutely.

The pope does not want leaders who consider themselves princes of the Church.

“Instead, he wants pastors who carry the smell of their sheep because they are close to ordinary people,” Allen asserted.

This call to service is a mandate that extends beyond clergy.

“Pope Francis is talking about anyone who plays a visible role in the Church,” he continued. “If you are publicly representing the Church, Francis expects you to do so through a lens of service.”

The veteran Vatican journalist said the new pontiff thinks of himself as a missionary tasked with bringing the healing presence of God to the world — particularly those who are broken, bruised, and hurting the most. That is why he stops his open air jeep, as it circles St. Peter’s Square, to embrace a man horribly disfigured with boils or invites a trio of homeless men — and their dog — to his birthday breakfast.

“When you see Francis doing things like that — it’s spontaneous and natural — but it is also intended to project a model of what mission is,” he added. “It means being attentive to those who are proximate to you and have a particular need for a taste of God’s healing love.”

The Holy Father is lifting up elements of the Social Gospel — concern for the poor, immigrants, peace, and the environment — but not at the expense of the Gospel of Life. According to Allen, Pope Francis gave a tough, pro-life address before a group of Italian medical professionals last October defining the right to life as “primordial.” In a political speech to diplomats this January, the pontiff called abortion, “the most horrific of crimes.”

“Take to the bank. This is a robust pro-life pope,” Allen stated emphatically.

But during his first year, the pope’s high-profile political interventions were all devoted to some element of the Social Gospel. He visited Lampedusa to highlight the plight of impoverished migrants, talked about solidarity with the poor, and issued an anti-war statement during the crisis in Syria.

“That is the Social Gospel in action, and I suspect, that is what we will increasingly see and hear from this pope,” the speaker suggested. “Not instead of our pro-life positions, but as an organic complement to the Gospel of Life.”

In closing, Allen advised TCU’s Catholic community to seize the energy generated by Pope Francis and use it as a strategy for the New Evangelization. Building on the missionary momentum of the pope, he told the gathering of students, educators, and local parishioners to follow the lead of Pope Francis and bring Catholicism into the streets where it can become relevant in the lives of people who are alien or distant from the Church.

“If we can come together and accent what we share, rather than what divides us, we can use this privileged moment in God’s plan for salvation to reintroduce the Church — with its best, most human face — to a world hungering for truth and leadership.”

TCU graduate Shaun Williams said Allen’s insights into Pope Francis brought back memories. The St. Vincent de Paul parishioner was in St. Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013 when white smoke, billowing from the Sistine Chapel, announced the election of the first pope from the Americas.

“A couple of hours later, we got to see Pope Francis for the first time,” he remembers. “We were right up in the front when he walked out on the balcony.”

Rain that drenched observers earlier in the evening stopped, and the night sky was beautiful.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here tonight. I wanted to relive that moment,” Williams explained. “It was probably the most exciting time in my life.”

Seasoned Vatican journalist John Allen, Jr., didn’t spare the hyperbole while discussing Pope Francis and the impact he’s having on popular culture, the media, and the Church. Addressing a Texas Christian University audience April 22, the CNN analyst and author told listeners when Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope March 13, 2013, “he burst like a supernova on the global scene and captured the imagination of the world.”

Published (until 5/14/2114)
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