As one news commentator said, in the countdown to the announcement in St. Peter's Square with an enormous crowd gazing with rapt attention at the loggia on the front of the basilica, "You've got to give it to the Roman Catholic Church, they know how to do theater!"
This is not yet another blog about the 266th Bishop of Rome, but it is one about the huge amount of "theater," the symbolism or sign-making surrounding that figure and how it is shifting before our eyes. The signs are dissolving and reforming under the gaze of a media machine more intense than the Catholic Church could ever have wished for in its heyday, when it controlled most of popular culture..
The basilica of St. Peter's itself is a triumph of media, in stone, in marble, in sculpture and painting, imposing even today on any visitor who stands below its mighty faceted form. But that structure is puny in comparison to the boundless electronic machine which eats images like that for breakfast, spews them out on countless screens throughout the world, goes on ravening for sound-bites and news feeds throughout the day, and never quits displaying all night long.
The local extravaganza of symbols and signs associated with the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Francis I was irresistible to the electronic media. And the new lead actor did not disappoint. From the choice of the name, the one hand wave and bow to the crowd, through the ditching of designer shoes, the trip in the bus and paying his own hotel bill, to his own telling of the story of the conclave, there were signs in superabundance for the media. That story has ricocheted around the world. When it looked like he was going to get the necessary two-thirds vote a fellow cardinal from Brazil embraced him and whispered the words "Remember the poor". That is the moment the name of Francis came to him, itself an echo-chamber of themes of poverty, peace and love of nature in the Christian tradition. Then later, as a papal flunkey made to vest him in the traditional red cape trimmed with ermine, Bergoglio told him, "No thank you, Monsignore. You put it on instead. Carnival time is over!"
But here's the thing. It's surely not the first time that men with a concern for simplicity and the poor have occupied the official center of the RCC. But it is the first time that images and signs associated with that concern have been amplified and broadcast across the world within seconds. The impact of that broadcasting then is not simply a reporting of abstract moral or religious teaching. The effect is instantaneous and resonates deeply in the human heart, because the message of the poor and nonviolent Christ is already in some way at the core of our image-driven culture. Thus the media greets what it already knows and signals it joyfully across the world. The media becomes itself a sign of the gospel, whether it recognizes it or not. And that gospel sign flashes back powerfully and critically to the church and begins at once its radical reform. (And indeed I am talking about all churches here).
The RC church is not and never will be what it was. Its old legal self-concept is being loosened by the boundary-breaking Christ working from the depths of human significance. The new bishop of Rome is very aware of this situation and responsive to it. What has happened in fact is a victory for Jesus, for his own power to transform the signs and their meaning at the heart of our contemporary world. Francis said and meant as much at his first general audience, when he met with 5000 reporters from 80 countries. He said, "Jesus is head of the church, not the pope."
Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian