The trinket-sellers of St Peter’s Square are big fans of Pope Francis — and not because of his theology. After two years in which business was killed off by a dysfunctional pontificate and an economic crisis, the man from Argentina has brought the crowds back again.
“Francesco has shown himself to be a very good person, who says things which not only are right, but he says them in a language people understand,” said Manuel, a stallholder who does a brisk trade in Francis fridge magnets. “When the pope comes out, the people stop, they listen to what he says, and then they want to buy something because they love him.”
Ever since he first appeared on the Loggia of the Blessings balcony in mid-March, the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has introduced himself to the world in a series of eye-catching moves that have made a break with the past and endeared him to many in the faithful and secular worlds alike. He has drastically downsized the papal living arrangements; ditched the finery in which his predecessors bedecked themselves and sent Vatican officials into regular spins with impromptu jokes and ad-libbed speeches.
The Catholic world has reveled in the sight of a pope picking up his own luggage and touring in a 20-year-old Fiat. Pilgrims cheer when he ends his Sunday blessings with the prosaic exhortation: “Have a good lunch.”
Today, the Catholic church’s first non-European leader will fly to his native Latin America for his inaugural papal trip overseas and, instead of touring Brazil’s volatile second city in a bullet-proof “pope-mobile,” he has chosen an open-top 4x4, which he can easily get out of to meet people. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take part in the World Youth Day festival in Rio de Janeiro.
With all this focus on image, it might be tempting to dismiss much of the so-called “Francis effect” as all style and no substance.
Such is the wide-ranging impact of his image that, far from the Vatican, the fashion writer Suzy Menkes pondered in the International Herald Tribune last week whether his “humility and abstention” had influenced the newly ascetic “fashion message coming out of Italy.” The idea earned the pope a reference in Vogue, complete with a photograph in which his plain white cassock and iron cross stood out starkly beside a gaudy Swiss guard.
Many observers say a new style is no bad thing. Moreover, with Francis, the medium is the message.
“He is someone of gesture rather than eloquent speeches,” said Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton and a prominent liberal theologian. “The papacy is very much about style. It is the public face that the Catholic church presents to the world, and so I think a fundamental change in style means something very deep.”
So far, the most arresting features of Francis’ papacy — from the abandonment of Benedict XVI’s ermine stoles and red shoes to his decision to live in a guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace — have seen him embodying a commitment to the poor.
As a man who has seen poverty up close since his childhood, the Argentine, now 76, has very clearly placed those at the bottom of the social hierarchy at the top of his agenda. It was not by chance that he made his first trip outside Rome last week to Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of African migrants arrive each year. On another occasion, he railed against the “cult of money.”