Review Essay

Making Some Noise for God

How to Understand Pope Francis

In This Review

To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism
By Ross Douthat
Simon & Shuster, 2018, 256 pp. Purchase

From the very first time he appeared on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, in Rome, in 2013, Pope Francis has sought to demystify the papacy and cultivate an image of himself as a humble servant of the faithful. Standing before the multitudes gathered below, who had anxiously awaited the billows of white smoke announcing the selection of a new pope, Francis—formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires—chose not to deliver a formal inaugural address, as previous popes had done. “Brothers and sisters, good evening,” he said. He then joked about his prior distance—geographic and otherwise, perhaps—from the Vatican, noting that the cardinals tasked with naming a new pope had to look “almost to the ends of the earth” to find him. He offered a prayer for his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and then explained, in clear but ecclesiastically impeccable language, the mission of the bishop of Rome: to preside “in charity over all the churches.” Then he bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing and conferred a blessing of his own. And that was that. 

From that moment on, Francis has never wasted an opportunity to project an aura of humility. Images abound of him visiting families in their homes, enjoying a coffee, embracing a sick worshiper or kissing a small child, and even buying new glasses at an eyewear store. In encouraging such coverage of Francis, the Vatican has highlighted one of his principal messages: that Catholics can and should find God even in the ordinary circumstances of human life. It has also bolstered the idea that Pope Francis is not a distant and mysterious figure but a common man like everyone else, just one more follower of Jesus Christ among so many others. 

Despite these efforts—or perhaps in part because of them—Francis has proved to be one of the most polarizing figures in the history of the Catholic Church. He infuriates ultraconservatives and leaves traditionalists uneasy: a number of high-profile church

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