Pope Culture: Behind the Phenomenon of the Pop Culture Pope

| December 20, 2013
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He’s Time Magazine‘s Person of the YearThe New Yorker snow angel cover boy, a Facebook star bigger than Prince George and Miley, a Twitter user, and a bona fide cultural phenomenon. When did the Pope get to be so pop?

Maybe Pope Francis is a case of the right man for the pop culture moment: his views on the global disparity of wealth and his much publicized humble lifestyle choices are sound-bytes tailor made for the times. He’s eco-friendly, low consumption, and about as unostentatious as a celebrity can get. He is the anti-Kardashian.

Perhaps some of this was predetermined by his global media debut. The conditions of Francis’s ascension to the seat in March had all the makings of a classic popera. A relative unknown on the international stage chosen to be the leader (and face) of an embattled church after his controversial predecessor’s sudden resignation (the first Papal resignation since 1415), Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s tale is at once Arthurian and that of the institutional underdog. It was the perfect introduction to the Holy See for a new media-consuming generation accustomed to reality competition narratives of stars plucked from obscurity. He’s even been attacked by Rush Limbaugh, a rite of passage for most pop culture icons.

My nine years of Catholic School (K-8) were during the Papacy of John Paul II. JPII was an enormously popular Pope during his reign and not just with the church ladies I knew that bought up commemorative plates, holy cards and even carpeted wall hanging during his visit to the Bay Area in 1987. Like Reagan, John Paul’s survival of an assassination attempt and role as a leader during the fall of the Soviet block elevated him to a kind of media iconography independent of his role as head of church. John Paul’s replacement, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, did not enjoy the same popularity with secular audiences. Revelations of long hidden abuses marred Benedict’s brand from the beginning (even among Catholics) and his media persona was the opposite of the openness and accessibility of a young John Paul II or Francis. In many ways, Francis is the first pope to access the tools of 21st century media to build relationships with both Catholic and non Catholic audiences. Here’s a look at some of the ways Francis has come to embody his branding as “The People’s Pope.”

The Papal Twitter

Francis’s predecessor may have been the first pope to send a tweet, but Francis has immediately adopted the tool as his own. @Pontifex has (of this writing) 3.3 million followers, recent tweets include the very secularly worded: “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us” and “Too often we participate in the globalization of indifference. May we strive instead to live global solidarity” and “The “throw-away” culture produces many bitter fruits, from wasting food to isolating many elderly people.” Francis also set one very significant record this year with regards to technology: he participated in the first Papal selfie on record. Francis has also generated his share of memes.

Papal Tourism

Photo: Semilla_luz, via Flickr

Photo: Semilla_luz, via Flickr

Reportedly, tourism in Rome is up by nearly 7 percent this year with a nearly 20 percent increase in visitors from Latin America. Of the Latin American visitors, an estimated 66 percent are from Francis’s native Argentina. “We have seen a steady rise in tourism and it’s clear the election of Pope Francis is one of the main reasons,” Marta Leonori, Rome’s top tourism official said to the Washington Post. Pope Francis theme bus tours have also hit the streets of Buenos Aries, taking tourists around to the sites and same bus routes the former Cardinal observed in his everyday life only a few months ago.

Papal Memorabilia

Photo: Jek a go go, via Flickr

Photo: Jek a go go, via Flickr

Pope watches, Pope t-shirts, even Pope soap-on-a-rope were the hit of Francis’s March coronation. Merchandizing is nothing new to popes, as the carpeted JPII wall hanging and souvenirs going back to the Crusades prove. Francis icons, holy statues and items of kitsch will likely go into overdrive with his new media distinctions and with increased Papal visits around the globe.

Papal Reading

Photo: Random House

Photo: Random House

With a new pope comes a new papal biography cottage industry. In addition to the biographies, theological essays about Francis’s supposed doctrinal leanings, and commemorative books, the Pope’s own On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the Twenty First Century has been an expected bestseller.

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About the Author ()

Tony Bravo is a San Francisco freelancer covering fashion, menswear, lifestyle and entertainment stories. He is a regular contributor to The Bold Italic and the San Francisco Chronicle's Style section.

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