When I heard last month that the editors at Esquire magazine had named Pope Francis the best-dressed man of the year, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
The juxtaposition of Esquire and the pope seemed absurd on the face of it.
And I suspected that Esquire, what with periodicals in general struggling to hang on to their readers, might have made a cynical decision to exploit the pope’s popularity.
Still, the bunch at Esquire weren’t the first to suggest that the relative simplicity of the Holy Father’s wardrobe, black shoes and all, reflects his plainspoken, down-to-earth approach to his office.
And the Esquire episode, although it was unprecedented, was only mildly surprising, because by December it was clear that Pope Francis had captured the attention of media that normally gives scant notice to the Church unless there’s an opportunity to embarrass or criticize it.
As a result, more people all over the world are interested in what the pope says and does, and his emphasis on mercy before judgment has tempered some of the antagonism directed at the Church in recent years.
I imagine that many Catholics get a rush of pride when they read or hear compliments about Pope Francis coming from other Christians, non-Christians, and even professed agnostics and atheists.
The pitfall in all of this is that the coverage of the pope that gets the widest distribution and the most attention is often superficial and sometimes inaccurate.
Reportage on the pope’s remarks about some issues is often distorted by perennial expectations, or wishful thinking, that the Church will change its fundamental teachings.
A case in point is the atheist journalist who had a personal interview with the pontiff but did not take notes, and then wrote in the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Pope Francis had abolished the concept of sin — an outlandish idea that the Vatican felt compelled to refute.
Another example is the imputation by some economic and political commentators that the Pope endorses Marxism because he argues against runaway consumerism and is in favor of proactive attention to the poor.
These aspects of the coverage may distract folks from the profound lesson Francis has been teaching, by word and example, on what constitutes a Christian life.
There’s no doubt that the pope’s charismatic personality — and his knack for providing dramatic and humorous photo opportunities — has given him a powerful advantage as he takes on a demanding role at a critical time.
But those of us who want to profit from this unique moment in the Church’s life can’t depend on the commercial coverage of this charming but challenging man.
Fortunately, in this digital age, we don’t have to. Besides the Vatican’s own website (www.vatican.va) there are several resources that provide substantial accounts of papal activity, including the Vatican Information Service (www.vis.va) which will e-mail to anyone who requests it a daily summary of the pope’s talks, audiences, and appointments.
Because Pope Francis generates so much conversation “on the street,” as it were, Catholics have an opportunity to engage in evangelism by being well informed on what he actually has said as opposed to what others think or hope he said.