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.