This week, Time Magazine announced that Pope Francis was its choice for “Person of the Year.”
It has been quite a year for the new pope, who took over for Benedict XVI in March, following the former pontiff’s abdication.
In only nine short months, he has managed to transform the public’s view of both the Catholic Church, as well as the papacy itself, and when you get right down to it, it wasn’t that hard for him to do.
It is without question that the pope and Catholicism are viewed more favorably today than they have been in a very long time. And all it took was a change in tone and approach from the man leading the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
This success likely confounds some people. Catholic dogma hasn’t changed at all. What the church preaches about issues facing mankind has not changed. The church has not liberalized itself, and fundamentally there is little difference in the operation of the church under Pope Francis compared with how it was under Benedict XVI or John Paul II.
It is not uncommon now for me to hear several of my non-Catholic friends say, “You know, I’m not Catholic and never have been, but I really like this Pope.” How then is there now such a groundswell of good feeling and support for the pope and his church, if things haven’t changed all that much?
The answer is Francis’ understanding of who he is ministering to and how easily he connects to people. Ultimately, it is a lesson of politics, and one that everyone who seeks the hearts of the public should learn.
The Catholic Church’s biggest problem in the last 50 or 60 years has been the increasing disconnect of members of the community with the church. This was made worse by the distant, hierarchical nature of Catholicism, with a far away leader who, while widely loved and respected, seemed disconnected from our everyday lives.
With the scandals that hit the church in recent years, this problem got worse. Most reasonable people know and understand that the leaders at the top had no interest in perpetuating abuse or covering up crimes, but it absolutely felt like they were too far away to truly care and do something about it.
As society has gotten more secular, this disconnect became poison, essentially telling devout Catholics that their church didn’t really understand their lives, wasn’t directly involved with how they lived and no longer defined their lives.
With a church in decline, particularly in the West, his personality has perfectly fit what Catholicism has needed, namely true understanding of the people who make up the faithful.
Gone is the imperial papacy. He refuses the lavish perquisites his position affords him. He sneaks out at night and ministers to the poor as though he was just another priest. He expresses compassion for groups typically maligned by the religious. He concerns himself with everyday people in a way no pope ever has.
He focuses his message to the people on what most rational people believe to be the real goal of Christianity: living a good, just life, concerned with helping people.
Are the pope and his church still pro-life? Yes. Do they still preach marriage as being between one man and one woman? Yes. Do they still have a problem with greed? Yes. Doctrine hasn’t changed.
But approach has. Gone is the notion that the pontiff is a judge, here to tell us who is good and bad. Gone is the idea that he is far away and disconnected from our lives. I’ve never met the man, but I feel like he probably understands what my life is like in a way the prior popes simply couldn’t.
And that change, that ultimate connection with people, giving to them what they wanted and needed, is responsible for the change in attitude we have seen. And that change of attitude has defanged and disarmed much of the vitriol outsiders have had for the church, which provides an opportunity to once again begin to win hearts and minds among people.
At the end of the day, it is connection to people that drives mass appeal. Sure, religious doctrine matters. Sure, in politics, ideology and issues matter. But they matter much less than you think they do.
For too long, we have believed that trust follows issues and ideology and beliefs.
Instead, the art of politics, be it from a pope or from a president, is about relating to people, and gaining their trust. Once you do that, they are open to hearing and believing what you do.
A lesson we should all learn from Francis.