Vatican expert says new pope offers same message but in different manner

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 | 7:32 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — You might have seen him consulting on "ABC News" as a Vatican expert during the papal conclave in March. Or maybe you saw him interviewed about the Catholic organization Opus Dei and "The Da Vinci Code."

Father John Wauck spoke Wednesday at the Missouri School of Journalism about Pope Francis' immediate popularity and rapport with people and its effect on communications.

Wauck, an Opus Dei priest and professor of literature at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, visited Columbia with Daniel Arasa, also a member of Opus Dei and coordinator of studies at the School of Institutional Communications of the Pontifical University.

Wauck posed a question at the beginning of the discussion: What is it about the new pope that is hitting home for people, that is getting him good press?

It began right away, he said, when white smoke appeared and people heard those centuries-old words, "Habemus Papam!" or "We have the pope!"

"When the pope appeared, the first impression that we had was some ordinary words and an extraordinary gesture, and from that point on he was beloved," Wauck said. "He said 'Buona sera,' or 'Good evening,' a totally normal greeting that anyone would say at that time of day — it was just very simple.

"And then he did something that was extraordinary. He bowed in silence and asked for the people in the square to pray for him, something that made a huge impact with people."

Francis offers the same messages as his predecessor Pope Benedict did but in a different manner — one that says he is personally invested in each person listening to him, Wauck said. That affects how his words are received.

"Their content is the same, but the way Pope Francis says things, and the way it is heard, is completely different," he said.

Wauck said there's a change in tone coming from the Vatican, but it's not a strategic one. "Pope Francis is doing what he wants and everyone is rushing to keep up with his changes," he said. "The way he is talking is getting a hearing that Pope Benedict never got."

Listening in the audience, MU journalism professor Jacqui Banaszynski asked Wauck about the constancy of the message from one pope to the next.

"It is an interesting thing for us as journalists to think about," Banaszynski said. "The perception of Benedict for a lot of people in this country was that of intolerance," especially about homosexuality and the idea of women priests.

"The impression of Francis so far is the opposite," she said. "If they are saying the same thing, are we mishearing? Or are they really different on that score?"

They are not different, Wauck said. Rather, Francis is getting away with saying things that would have come off harsh if Benedict had said it.

"Francis successfully seems to frame his message as a message of mercy," Wauck said.

The noon-hour discussion led to speculations about journalists' personal feelings getting in the way of reporting.

"Personal feelings do intrude when you get caught up in a real-life event," Wauck said. "But perception is the reality in some ways."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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Thomas Dillingham September 19, 2013 | 10:11 a.m.

I wonder exactly what authority Wauck and Arasa bring with them when they speak about the Pope? Do their views represent the Pope's own understanding of his statements and actions, or are they, as it appears, merely the effort of Opus Dei to take control of the narrative, to mold the "perception" of the Pope's statements so as to force the public to believe that there is "nothing new here," but just a continuation of the former Pope's views with, according to Mauck and Arasa, some cosmetic charm designed to seduce the faithful. There is nothing quoted in this article to assure me that these two priests in any way represent the views or wishes of the Pope, and I find it ironic that on the same day this article appears, a front page article in the NY Times includes the following:

"In remarkably blunt language, Francis sought to set a new tone for the church, saying it should be a “home for all” and not a “small chapel” focused on doctrine, orthodoxy and a limited agenda of moral teachings.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” the pope told the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a fellow Jesuit and editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal whose content is routinely approved by the Vatican. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

That does not sound like the bland type of re-phrasing that Wauck and Arasa would like to attribute to the present Pope--portraying him as merely a shill for the Church rather than as a man who brings a more powerful and challenging moral viewpoint to the papacy. I wish this article had been more probing and more informative.

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Thomas Dillingham September 19, 2013 | 2:56 p.m.

An interesting dramatic irony--on the same day we read the report of Opus Dei priests claiming that Pope Francis is somehow the same as Pope Benedict, just "nicer" about it, we can read the interview with the Pope published in American magazine that clearly indicates how DIFFERENT he is and how different his views are from not only Pope Benedict, but from the Opus Dei priests who seem, under the circumstances, to be accusing the Pope of self-conscious fraudulent communications. Somebody, it would seem, is engaged in serious misrepresentation, and the motives for it are pretty transparent.

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