He Regularly packs St Peter’s for mass, has made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and even has a new weekly fanzine devoted to him in Italy, but Pope Francis called a halt to the personality cult springing up around him yesterday, saying it was “offensive”.
As he prepares to mark his first year in office, Francis attacked the hype surrounding his wildly popular papacy, claiming he is a “normal person”.
“Sigmund Freud said, if I am not mistaken, that behind every idealisation there is aggression,” Francis, 77, told Italian daily Corriere della Sera in an interview.
“Portraying the Pope as a kind of superman, a type of star, seems offensive,” he said.
“The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps tranquilly and has friends like everyone. A normal person,” he said.
Francis also took aim at some of the stories told about his unorthodox behaviour, including a recent report that he slips out of the Vatican at night to distribute food to tramps. “That never crossed my mind,” he said.
Following the appearance of graffiti near the Vatican depicting Francis as a superhero, a new weekly magazine called My Pope was published on Wednesday featuring articles about Francis and a centrefold pull-out picture of him. The magazine is published by Mondadori, which also publishes gossip magazines and is owned by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The Vatican is encouraging adoration of Francis by issuing commemorative stamps and a DVD with unseen footage of the Pope on the night he was elected, in time for the 13 March anniversary of his election.
In his wide ranging interview, Francis also proposed giving an active role to retired popes, and suggested future pontiffs might follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, and resign instead of dying on the job. “Benedict is the first, and maybe there will be others. We don’t know,” he said.
Francis praised the gradual re-emergence of Benedict, who initially claimed he would disappear from public view to a life of prayer when he announced his resignation in February 2013 at the age of 85, becoming the first pontiff to retire in 600 years.
Benedict made a surprise appearance at a Vatican consistory in St Peter’s, held to appoint new cardinals last month.
Francis argued that retired popes should have an active role similar to retired bishops, who often continue to represent the Church after they retire at 75. The position of emeritus bishop, he said, “is an institution,” adding, “The same thing needs to happen for the Emeritus Pope.”
Francis said he had decided with Benedict “that it would be better if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the Church”. Asked if he had ever been in love, Francis said: “At the seminary, a girl turned my head for a week. These were the things of young people. I spoke about it with my confessor.”
Quizzed about his habit of phoning people who write to him, he said: “When one calls it is because you want to speak, you have a question to ask, an advice to ask.” He singled out an 80-year-old widow, who had lost her son, who he calls once a month. “She is happy and I get to be a priest, which I like,” he said.
Turning to the child abuse scandals which have plagued the Church and brought fierce criticism recently from the UN for the way that senior prelates covered up for abusive priests, Francis gave a staunch defence of the Church’s track record.
“The Catholic Church is possibly the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility,” he said. “No-one else has done more. Yet the Church is the only one to be attacked.”