Tom Devine: Pope’s appeal goes beyond the Church

Pope Francis has only been the 265th successor to Saint Peter for a few days but already he seems a strong breath of fresh air and hope for the future.

The idea is already gaining traction among Vatican watchers that his cardinal electors may have made an inspirational choice as the new leader of the global Catholic Church.

Yesterday, speaking to an audience of several thousand journalists in the Vatican, he gave us further insights into the Francis style and likely foundations of his papacy. We now know that he possesses the capacity to charm large audiences. The journalists gave him a rapturous reception, punctuated by applause, laughter and cries of “Viva il Papa” and “Francesco”. He thanked them, joked with them and blessed them, including the non-believers in their ranks. There has rarely been a papal press audience like it. It would seem that Catholicism once again has a Pope who can communicate with fluency and impact at a time in history when a powerful and charismatic media presence is vital to the mission of the Church.

Then there is Francis’s informality, modesty and humility, which have been there for all to see since his first remarkable appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s after his election. This, in my view, will have enormous appeal to humanity, and especially to the young. This is a period of history when pomp and circumstance and the old trappings no longer have the same appeal as they once did. It would be no bad thing for all members of the hierarchy to copy his style.

Once again yesterday and in relaxed mood Francis departed from his formal script and spoke feelingly, frankly and sometimes humorously to the assembled media. He confided how he had felt in the conclave as the voting continued to go his way and it began to seem “a bit dangerous”, when he looked like reaching the required two-thirds to secure election.


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The name “Francis” only came to him at that moment in honour of St Francis of Assisi. The name will be the great symbol and brand of his pontificate – “a poor church and a church for the poor”. This is not only a holy man and a potentially great spiritual leader but a Pope who will champion social justice, who will be unambiguously on the side of the marginalised and the disadvantaged in a world scarred by gross human inequalities and rampant materialism. Viva il Papa indeed.

Tom Devine is personal senior research professor of history at the University of Edinburgh