The question explored in this week's "Crossroads" podcast is not whether all of those media-friendly events during World Youth Day are, in fact, "photo ops" -- chances for Pope Francis to be photographed making the kinds of symbolic gestures for which he (and the soon to be John Paul the Great) is already famous.
Of course, these are photo ops. Michelle Obama visiting an inner-city vegetable garden is a photo op, too. This is a part of leadership in a visual, 24/7 cable age.
The question Todd Wilken and I explored this past week (click here to listen to that) is whether or not these events -- which are almost always directly linked to formal or informal papal remarks/texts -- are MERELY photo ops or events that often contain a doctrinal level of content that is linked to newsworthy subjects.
What are we talking about?
A reader cited a perfect example of this syndrome the other day, drawn from coverage in The Los Angeles Times:
"Thousands of young pilgrims filled a rainy Copacabana beach to attend a series of religious-themed concerts that were part of World Youth Day, which, despite the name, is a five-day event that began Tuesday and is ostensibly the reason for the pope's visit to Brazil."
Commenting on an earlier World Youth Day post, reader Martha O'Keefe remarked:
I love that "ostensibly"; sure, 'the Vatican' says he's there because of this event, but that's only a coincidence! Why is he really in Brazil? Who can say, maybe he felt like a holiday?
Yes, that is the key word. And what, pray tell, does "ostensible" mean?
os·ten·si·ble -- adjective ...
(1) intended for display: open to view
(2) being such in appearance: plausible rather than demonstrably true or real -- the ostensible purpose for the trip
When John Paul -- wrestling against the doubting Vatican powers that be -- first created World Youth Day, he wasn't actually (from his point of view) trying to make a case for faith and social action in the confused spiritual ocean that is the postmodern age?
He wasn't trying to recruit young men and women for worship and service in the church, especially young men for the priesthood and women and men into religious life?
He wasn't, knowing that he lives in a visual age, trying to create living symbols that would speak -- even heroically -- to the young?
The pope is "ostensibly" at World Youth Day to, well, talk to young people and, on a second level, to the complex world of Latin American Catholicism?
Of course, there are political implications. That is part of the story. Part. Of.
Of course, these are symbolic photo ops. But is that all that they are?
And the arguments that he is making to the faithful: Is it possible to cover the actual content of his remarks without including any of the explicitly Christian material that is at the heart of his sermons, at the heart of his visit?
Then there is the issue of this particular pope's past history.
It was impossible to understand John Paul's love of World Youth Day without understanding that, as a young priest, he was a campus minister who dove into camping, hiking, skiing and other settings that put him side by side with the young.
Now, it is impossible to grasp what Pope Francis is doing without taking into account his own biography. The following Washington Post story did that, near the end of the text:
Wearing a plain white cassock, the pope ... mounted a stage on a soccer pitch and told residents he had hoped to visit “all the barrios of the city.”
“I wanted to come knock on all doors, ask for a fresh glass of water, drink a coffee -- not cachaca,” he said to laughs from the crowd, referring to the local hot beverage made from fermented sugar cane.
“Brazil is so big, it is not possible to knock on every door,” the pope went on. “So I chose to come here, to visit your community, a community that represents all the barrios of Brazil.”
Francis has become known as the “slum pope,” not just because of his advocacy for the downtrodden during his four months as pontiff but also because of his fearlessness in entering the “misery villages,” as shantytowns are known, in his native Buenos Aires. ...
Francis’s larger plan is to strengthen the church in Brazil, where millions have migrated from Catholicism to evangelicalism in recent years, by bolstering support for the poor. A poll published Sunday in the Sao Paulo newspaper Folha was sobering for the Brazilian church hierarchy and the Vatican: Only 57 percent of Brazilians age 16 or older identify as Catholic, down from well over 90 percent in the 1960s.
In his remarks in Varginha, the pope criticized the “culture of selfishness and individualism,” spoke of how the wealthy need to do more to end social injustice and told residents to “never yield to discouragement” because of corruption. He also praised the poor for the solidarity they show toward one another, saying such gestures can be a “great lesson for the world.”
Once again, however, these actions were primarily presented in the Post in terms of political and cultural content, with the pope's actual message stripped of almost all of its religious content.
I guess, in the end, he is ostensibly the leader of the Catholic Church. His claims to power and authority are, well, political.
In reality, of course, he is all of the above and the spiritual role and content must be presented as one part of that whole picture.