Decoding Francis: Vatican media adviser offers “10 things to know”

VATICAN CITY — If people are still unsure about what to make of Pope Francis, the Vatican’s media adviser offered his take on decoding the pontiff.


Greg Burke, media adviser to the Vatican, participating in a Vatican press conference Dec. 3, 2012. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“Pope Francis is not a politically-correct pope,” rather, he is “a loyal son of the church” who presents the hard truths with a heavy dose of mercy, said Greg Burke, senior communications adviser to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

The former U.S. journalist, who’s been based in Rome the past 25 years, gave a behind-the-scenes talk last week to hundreds of benefactors celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

U.S. Msgr. Peter Wells — another top official at the Secretariat of State — also spoke at the same Oct. 18 event in the apostolic palace, where he gave his take on the reform of the curia and how they counteract secular media manipulating the pope’s message.

In trying to describe his papally-appointed role as the Vatican’s chief media strategist, Burke (an unabashed soccer fan) said, “We kick the ball to Francis and Francis scores the goals.” “We let the pope do his thing.”

He said Pope Francis clearly knows how to communicate and his effectiveness comes from his authenticity. “It’s not charm. It’s Christian charity, which is a whole lot more attractive than charm.”

He also said “Pope Francis is not a politically-correct pope, in my opinion.”

Pope greets people in wheelchairs after celebrating Mass in St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Pope Francis greeting people in wheelchairs after celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican June 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There’s been a lot of spin in the press about what the pope has been saying, but “I believe the pope wants to get beyond left and right” by getting people to focus on the Gospels, on God and his truth and mercy.

“He’s a loyal son of the church” who sees its task as being like “a field hospital” that runs to and helps people who are hurting, he said.

The pope is not advocating a “feel-good” religion of “I’m OK-you’re OK-Catholicism,” but talks about the truth of the Gospel that includes mercy and forgiveness.

“The Gospel is not there to make us feel good. The Gospel is there and makes very practical demands on us,” and one of those demands is to “tell people the truth and walk with them to the Lord,” Burke said.

Burke said, “the pope’s picture should have one of those warning labels” on it, much like a pack of cigarettes does, but with the words: “Danger: This man could change your life.”

Here’s Burke’s Top Ten List to describe and better understand the Argentine pontiff:

Pope greets man as he meets with patients, others at hospital in Rio

Pope Francis greeting a man at Rio de Janeiro’s St. Francis of Assisi Hospital — a clinic for recovering drug addicts. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (July 24, 2013)

1. Mercy — The story of the Prodigal Son is a recurring theme and the pope repeatedly says that God never tires of forgiving and welcoming his lost children back home.  “The church is waiting here for you with open arms,” is the message, Burke said.

2. Moxie/courage — “We’re all going to get challenged by Pope Francis. Get ready!” People who live comfortably or live in developed nations will be especially challenged, Burke said, adding, “This is good. This is the Gospel.”

3. Margins, missions — Francis is continuing with his predecessors’ criticism of a world divided by haves and have-nots. The pope “is not a fan of cheap grace and feel-good religion. He wants to see Christians who are not afraid to get their hands dirty,” Burke said.

Woman prays as pope leads vigil to pray for peace in Syria

A woman in prayer as Pope Francis led a vigil to pray for peace in Syria in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sept. 7. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

4. Prayer — Non-believers often don’t notice how important prayer is for religious life. For example, Blessed Mother Teresa was often looked upon by the secular press as “a social worker wearing a habit.” But, Burke said, the pope has constantly been stressing the importance of prayer and urging people to pray.

5. Encounter — The pope is asking people to embrace a “culture of encounter” where they experience God and meet with others, including non-believers. This attitude of encounter and communion also starts at home, with your family, Burke said.

Pope Francis gives thumbs as he leaves St. Peter's Square after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass

Pope Francis giving a thumbs up after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican March 24. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

6. Joy — The pope “gets a thumbs’ up on that,” he said, as he’s able to show his joy so plainly. He said that according to Pope Francis, the biggest dangers and temptations in life are “discouragement, discord, the doldrums and the devil.”

7. Service — By paying his hotel bill in person (even though he had just been elected pope), phoning people who write to him and other do-it-yourself tasks, the pope is leading by example with the message that “it’s not about power or privilege; if we’re here, we’re here to serve.”

Pope Francis steps off a plane in Rome, returning from his trip to Brazil

Pope Francis stepping off a plane after returning to Rome July 29 from his trip to Brazil. (CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters)

8. Simplicity/Humility — Living in a Vatican guest house instead of the apostolic palace, carrying his own briefcase on a trip… that’s just how the pope is and people will have to “get used to it because we’ll see more of it,” Burke said.

9. Compassion — Burke, who’s a numerary member of Opus Dei and went to Jesuit-run St. Louis University high school in St. Louis, said he used to joke with people “that everyone should have a Jesuit education. Now with Pope Francis, everyone is getting the benefits of a Jesuit education.”

“Compassion and suffering with others is something Pope Francis has a knack for” and it’s especially evident when he embraces people and is totally present one-on-one with an individual, even in large crowds.

10. Energy — Burke said for a 76-year-old, the pope “has a lot of energy and we’re going to be in for an interesting ride!”

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14 Responses to Decoding Francis: Vatican media adviser offers “10 things to know”

  1. John Parry says:

    WTG Pope Francis ! You rock! from a Protestant Christian.

  2. Paul and Pegi Ackerman says:

    Pope Francis is a true man of God. He is a good leader, who depends on God for his moves and in what he says and does. May God Bless him and give him a long life…………………

  3. loves and cares for all people.

  4. Jim Finfera says:

    Love Pope Francis! Your article on him was right on….well put! I like to add one more thing! Jesus was not politically-correct as well. Our Pope reminds me of Jesus!!!!

  5. As a Catholic physician, I do not understand why Pope Francis does not have compassion for the victims of clergy sex abuse.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

  6. Frank farrell says:

    Rosemary, as a Catholic non physician, I do not understand how you can read the mind of Pope Francis. I also don’t understand the seeming indifference you seem to have toward the victims of public school teacher sex abuse that occurs at much higher rates than clergy sex abuse. Ooops. I’m reading your mind!

  7. Pope Francis helped to keep a convicted sexual predator priest in Argentina out of his 15 year jail sentence since 2009 until recently, and refused to meet with the victim. Pope Francis has not given all files on clergy sexual abuse in the Vatican and elsewhere to the police, like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland has done.
    Where is the Pope’s compassion for the victims of clergy sexual abuse???

  8. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (ret.) says:

    Dr. Rosemary McHugh is a noted anti-pope critic due to the clergy abuse scandal and a self proclaimed victim of a Carmelite priest. Her stated sorrows are not unique, I know of abuse victims whose horror shaped their lives. They have been in my prayers for over a decade. And I am certain that a just God awaits those who prey on the vulnerable. We have learned, yet again, that all mankind is sinful, including the rare priest or hierarchy. This is central Catholic teaching.

    But it does not follow that other institutions are pure. Some governments slaughter those they arrest, and arrest priests on the basis of lies. Sexual assaults in US school systems are an order of magnitude worse than the church, and nothing has been done to root out the criminal bosses, and predators. But Pope Francis, in six months, has shown a new way. He washed the feet of prostitutes on Holy Thursday and just turned a $43 bishop’s refurbished home into a shelter for the poor, after suspending the bishop’s authority.

    Item no. 2, “We’re all going to get challenged by Pope Francis. Get ready!”, applies to both clergy and laity. His name sake, St. Francis, was ordered by God to reform the church. Pope Francis will do the same, with God’s help. Our job: Pray for him, the devil is active..

  9. Frank farrell says:

    Rosemary – Simply not credible. Nick Miroff with the Wash Post investigated these claims and others and found “no credible evidence” that Pope Francis as Archbishop had any knowledge of abuse or engaged in any cover up before or after such abuse came to light. As a Catholic physician don’t you find it surprising that only two Buenos Aries priests in 15 years had credible charges of abuse brought against them? In my zip code alone it has been reported in the press that three physicians (don’t know if they are Catholic) have credible charges of sexual abuse pending in the past two years! Don’t even ask about public school teachers. Does this concern you in the least? Or perhaps it is only abuse by Catholics clerics that interests you?

  10. As a physician, I am concerned about all cases of sexual abuse. As a Catholic, I am concerned that Pope Francis has done nothing so far to make the Church accountable, as has been done by the Archbishop of Dublin, in giving all records on clergy sexual abuse to the police for investigation. Jesus said the truth will set us free. There is still secrecy and denial of the truth by the Church, which says it is acting in the place of Jesus. What would Jesus do? Have the popes for centuries been doing what Jesus would do in covering up sexual crimes against innocent children and vulnerable adults?

  11. Frank farrell says:

    As someone who had a close family member victimized I’m not sure the Church should necessarily turn over every record of abuse to every law enforcement agency around the world. I can tell you such an action would be a gross violation of privacy of the victim. If victims want to come forward they should do so. Your reference to popes covering up for centuries leads me to believe you have a particular ax to grind against Catholics. No institution kept reliable records on such matters until the middle of the last century.The Church no doubt deserves criticism but no more (or less) than, ministers, rabbis, public school teachers, physicians, youth athletic coaches and scout leaders – yes even heterosexual parents. The singular focus on Catholic clerics gives me pause as to whether some critics are more concerned with settling scores than preventing abuse in the first place. Have you pressed for the release of all abuse accusations in your local school district? In the last year more than sixty cases of abuse have been lodged against public school teachers in Los Angelas alone.

  12. As a fellow Catholic who is interested in children being protected, I am interested in all cases of sexual abuse being investigated by police. The church has wanted to be able to police themselves. These are crimes that have been committed and need to be investigated by the proper authorities. The church is not the proper authority to investigate its own crimes of sexual abuse, of obstruction of justice, of money laundering, or of any crimes. That is what the police and civil law are for.

  13. Jim Finfera says:

    Frank and Rosemary! Both of you have made some valid points here. Remember a key principle given by Dr. Stephen Covey, “Seek first to understand and then be understood”. Try to understand the pain of the other. Rosemary, you chose a very noble profession. God bless you. Seems to me you understand the suffering of your patients. Bet you are a great doctor!!!!

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