Is the Messenger the Message?

“The medium is the message.”—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw Hill, 1964).

McLuhan’s famous quote from a half a century ago has never been truer than it is today. The proliferation of mass media—first audio recordings, film, and television, and later home computers, the Internet, and mobile devices—have placed an overwhelming variety of content in our hands every waking moment of our lives. From education, to entertainment, to mindless distraction, the digital media onslaught is never-ending.

But now, in this age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and every other social-media platform wrestling for our ever-diminishing attention spans, has McLuhan’s prophetic quote become passé? In our current, self-centered, selfie-obsessed, digital navel-gazing culture, has the messenger become the message?

This is the question I am trying to answer, as a writer, as a blogger, and most importantly as a Christian. How do I balance the need to create and maintain a platform with the necessary call of Christian humility? How do I get out of my own way and point back to the One who is the Maker and Sustainer of all things? How do I glorify Him through the gifts he has given me and use those gifts for the uplifting of others rather than my own glorification? And how do I accomplish the very practical task of bringing traffic to my blog and spreading the word about my writing at the same time?

These are difficult questions. I can ask them in five minutes, but I’m not sure how long it will take for me to answer them.

Five Minute Friday

Five for Francis

Pope Francis bows before the people.

Photo: Associated Press

Here are five thoughts on the new pope.

1) First! The Media has taken to calling him Francis I, which is technically incorrect. While he is the first pope named Francis, the number is normally not added after a regnal name until it is duplicated. For example Queen Elizabeth I of England was simply known as Elizabeth until Elizabeth II became Queen of the United Kingdom in 1952. But the confusion is understandable. The short reigning John Paul I took an ordinal number as part of his name, and after his untimely death was followed a little over a month later by his namesake, the far better known John Paul II. In addition, we’re not used to original pope names. Before John Paul I, the last undisputed “first” was Pope Saint Nicholas I (858-67), while the last pope with a unique name was Lando (913-14). Given his short and forgettable reign it’s doubtful there will be another.

But though technically incorrect, Pope Francis is “The First” in many ways. First Jesuit pope, first “New World Pope,” and first Pope named for St. Francis (or any Francis for that matter).  However, he is not the first non-European pope. By tradition, that distinction goes to the first pope, a Galilean fisherman known to the world as St. Peter. But he is the first non-European since Pope St. Gregory III (731-41) who was Syrian.

2) His Name. Like millions of Catholics around the world, I sat staring at a set of curtains on TV for an hour waiting to find out who the new pope would be (and set a personal record for curtain-staring). Then came the announcement (and the translation):

I announce to you a great joy:
We have a Pope!
The most eminent and most reverend Lord,
Lord Jorge Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Bergoglio,
Who takes for himself the name of Francis.

I wrote on this blog last month how Benedict XVI’s retirement was a great statement of humility. Then as the conclave began on Tuesday, I wrote in a guest post that I was praying for the next pope to follow his example. When I heard the name Francis, I felt my prayers had been answered. St. Francis is, after the Blessed Virgin, the most beloved of all saints, in large part because of his humble simplicity. All the saints are icons of Christ, but St. Francis just might be the most Christlike of them all.

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Habemus Papam . . . Emeritus?

Sede vacante papal arms.

The arms of the Holy See during the papal interregnum (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0)

This is my second Lenten Season as a Catholic (third, if you count the one I observed as a conformation candidate), and it is a historic one. Today, Pope Benedict XVI is relinquishing the Chair of Saint Peter. This is not a once-in-a lifetime occurrence, not even a once-in-a-century one. It has been nearly six hundred years since Pope Gregory XII resigned to end the Western Schism. To put that time frame into perspective, consider that in 1415—the year Gregory resigned—Constantinople was still Christian (it would fall to the Ottomans in 1453) and all of Western and Central Europe were still Catholic (Martin Luther’s father hadn’t been born yet).

So, yes, it’s a big deal, and it will take a while, perhaps even a lifetime, to truly understand the implications, but here are a few thoughts.

First, this is a good reminder of the difference between the man and the office. The authority that Christ granted to Peter is invested in the chair, not in the man who occupies it. Starting tomorrow, Benedict XVI, while retaining his papal name, will no longer be the Bishop of Rome. We who make up the Church, clergy and laity, will need to remember that, for however much longer God grants him the grace of his time on earth, he may be Pope Emeritus (that is retired pope),  but that is an honorific title only. He is no longer the pope, and today he made that clear by pledging obedience to his soon-to-be-elected successor.

Second, the pope holds the keys given by Christ to Peter. These keys are usually surrendered at death, but his handing them back to the Church reminds us that they belong first and foremost to the Church. Just as Christ handed the keys to Peter, the Body of Christ—that is the Church—hands them to Peter’s successor. The power is held by the Church and exercised on the Church’s behalf by the pope. The pope takes Peter’s place, and only for a short time. No one takes Christ’s place.

Third, this is a rare act of humility for one who holds an office invested with so much power. The pope holds several grandiose titles, like Vicar of Christ and Supreme Pontiff, but my favorite title is the one that says what the papacy truly is, but rarely seems to be given the human failings of its many office holders, the Servant of the Servants of God. Jesus told his disciples not to hold authority like the gentiles do, but to serve like he did. He also said that in the Kingdom of God the last shall be first.

To paraphrase Jesus (in Mark 2:27), the Papacy exists to serve the Church not the Church to serve the Papacy. Taking the Pope’s actions at face value, I hope and pray that this rare act of humility will remind us of the pope’s appointed role in the Church, to serve the faithful and to feed the Lord’s sheep. I also hope and pray that his successor takes this lesson to heart as he leads the flock entrusted to him out of the wilderness of Lent and into the promise of Easter.