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Photo via Republic of Korea/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How the ‘Cool Pope’ became the biggest star on the Internet

He's not like a regular pope.


S.E. Smith


Posted on Dec 29, 2014   Updated on May 29, 2021, 9:29 pm CDT

When white smoke wafted over the Papal Conclave last March, it marked the election of a man who may turn out to be one of the Catholic Church’s most radical reformers. Pope 2.0 or the “Cool Pope,” if you will, has spoken out against capitalism, poverty, and other social ills, integrating political commentary into his spiritual identity. It’s not surprising from a Jesuit, as the order has long been associated with social justice and a commitment to both faith and community, but the thing that makes Pope Francis particularly interesting is that he’s taken to public relations and social media with a vengeance, utterly changing the nature of Vatican communications.

Upon taking office, Francis noted that many of the doings of the Vatican were shrouded in secrecy. Almost immediately, he broke open the secrets of the Vatican Bank, began giving addresses in a variety of languages, and took to the streets to interact directly with the Catholic faithful. He chose modest housing, forewent many of the trappings of his office, washed the feet of female Muslim juvenile offenders, and took on a role of a pope steeped in humility.

While his expression of faith is genuine, it was also an incredibly intelligent illustration of rebranding, driven no doubt not just by the pope himself but by consultants. Writing in 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down, CNN’s Timothy Stanley pointed out the tough task that lay ahead for any successor to the office: “To borrow a much abused marketing term, he is going to have to subject it to a rebranding.”

He was writing in an era where Catholic Church public opinion was at an all-time low: Scandals of child abuse, falling numbers of followers, and accusations of outdated social and religious beliefs were tearing the church apart. The ancient religious order faced a hostile public, and the confidence of that public wavered when the Conclave elected not just the first Jesuit pope in history, but the first from the global south. The Conclave, at least, was clearly ready for change, but they may have underestimated just how radical Francis would be.

Marian Salzman of Forbes also noted that “Pope Francis will need some rock-solid branding skills.” Salzman wrote, “He’ll have to have a strong personal brand, a vision for the church’s brand in the 2010s and beyond, and an understanding of how outside forces might conspire to brand him.” It may sound strange to reduce a religious leader to a celebrity who needs a smart PR strategy, and a religion as an advertising campaign, but in a sense, that’s precisely how religions have won converts for thousands of years, by not just providing faith and a reason to adhere to it, but working to reach members of the community.

In the case of Pope Francis, it became readily apparent that his time in office would be marked by humility, transparency, and outreach, three traits that previous popes, with the exception of the beloved John Paul II, had struggled with. In the 21st century, it was easier than ever before for him to become a social media and publicity superstar, thanks to the Internet.

Writing for the Omaha Daily Herald, Michael Gerson spoke to Francis’ emergence as a pope with a sharp eye to public relations backed by authentic faith. “This has been more than public relations, but not devoid of public relations,” Gerson wrote. “Francis has a feel for powerful symbols of simplicity, humility and compassion, such as carrying his own suitcase, washing the feet of Muslim prisoners, inviting the homeless to his birthday party, touching the disfigured.” He knows the importance of images and how they’ll play in a world where communication is instantaneous and a striking scene can go viral in a blink.

It worked. Pope Francis became Time’s Person of the Year in 2013, something Adam Brebreton at the Guardian suggested was due to the fact that his “popularity is so vast that even those who would be excluded by the organization he governs applaud him.” Brebreton argued, “If that’s not a public relations coup, I don’t know what is. Perhaps he should be rebranded accordingly: not the people’s Pope, but the PR Pope.” Best Global Brands echoed Brebreton’s sentiments.

In an essay for Patheos, Edmund Lo, SJ, pointed out that the Pontiff’s cultural success as the “cool pope” seemed driven by a balance of compelling factors. “He feels ‘real’ in that way, but his realness goes beyond delightful spontaneity,” Lo said. “He keeps it real in a more profound way.  I think that his realness, in particular, isn’t just a matter of personal charisma, but a result of a basic element of Ignatian spirituality and Jesuit prayer: the Examen.” The classic Jesuit prayer invites people to consider the role of the spiritual in their daily lives, something Francis seems to have embraced at every level of his life in the Vatican, and as a result, his reputation has flourished on social media.

While Benedict XVI may have established the @pontifex Twitter account, it’s Pope Francis who has turned it into a runaway success (the Vatican actually maintains Twitter accounts in nine languages). The pope also has a Facebook page, and he’s savvy about social media etiquette, even if he doesn’t manage his accounts personally. (His aides develop posts, allegedly approved by him before they go live.) At a conference in 2013, Msgr. Paul Tighe, the second-in-command at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said that:

The social media landscape is peer to peer, it’s free and it’s open. That’s not the immediate description of the church at times. What we need to realize is when in an environment where authority is different…authority, broadly, we have to earn it rather than we can claim it.

In the Internet world, your authority and popularity are measured less by your social status in the outside world and more by your ability to communicate effectively through social media. Francis has owned the Internet, with the papal selfie being perhaps the most dramatic example. Believed to have originated in a group of grinning teens who took their picture with Pope Francis, creating an image that almost instantly went viral, they’ve now become a ubiquitous presence in the media, the literal image of a pope who directly interacts with his people. Papal selfies are so popular that people are taking photographs of themselves with cardboard cutouts to get into the spirit, a promotional tool used by the Vatican to generate public interest before official visits.

The Vatican even tweeted a soccer joke, illustrating that the ancient organization has become more invested in fun public relations, creating a more accessible image that makes even non-Catholics smile, which is exactly the point. Notable zingers and comments are retweeted around the world, reaching people who are not members of the faith, and creating a new, modern, updated version of Catholicism, one the church hopes is enough to expand its flock and renew the faith of lapsed Catholics.

Last summer also marked the now-infamous offer of “indulgences” for the pope’s Twitter followers, a widely publicized campaign the Vatican used to generate interest in the Catholic World Youth Day in Brazil. It was a little more complicated than boosting the pope’s Klout score, though; the Vatican used the campaign to make it easier for Catholics to participate in prayers and rites that they couldn’t attend in person due to the cost of travel to South America. In inviting people to tune into Catholic World Youth Day on Internet, television, and the radio, the Vatican promised followers time off in purgatory; however, the Vatican warned that Catholics actually had to pray along. 

Pope Francis really is Pope 2.0, but not just in the sense that he’s attempting to push through key reforms in the Catholic church and lead by example through his humility. He’s also recognized the power of the Internet as a political, social, liturgical, and religious tool, and he’s using it highly adroitly. In an era where the Internet is, as Tighe put it, “another continent,” a religious leader who recognizes the potential of the digital world is several steps ahead of his peers. At a time when Catholic identity is on the wane and church attendance is down, the pope is doing what evangelical Christians and members of other faiths have long known is a critical component of selling religion: reaching out to the next generation to get them engaged, both online and off.

Photo via Republic of Korea/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 29, 2014, 12:30 pm CST