February 19th, 2014
11:35 AM ET
Opinion by Laurence England, special to CNN
(CNN) - In the year since Francis was elected Pope, the media have told us a certain story about this man “from the ends of the Earth,” as he once described himself.
Francis, we are told, is warm and friendly, gentle and compassionate. He embraces the poor, the disfigured, the outcast.
These attributes pose a sharp contrast, we are informed, to his mean-spirited, judgmental and arrogant predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was known for his fancy vestments and aloof, academic attitude.
If Francis has the common touch, the story goes, Benedict was firmly out of touch, perched on an ivory tower far inside the Vatican.
To many Catholics this media-driven contrast between the two Popes is laughable.
Benedict may have been unpopular with the world and many of its opinion-makers, but those who loved him as the Holy Father, who listened to what he said and read what he wrote, knew a far different man than is cruelly caricatured in the media.
We welcomed Benedict's theology and liturgical vision; and the hallmark of his papacy was a deep humility rooted in prayer. He was ever the gentleman. Even his criticisms of trends in modern society that run contrary to the church’s teachings on life, marriage and the family were delivered in courteous language.
And when Benedict did say something likely to be deemed offensive, he was often extremely careful about the way in which he said it.
In fact, he was much more careful not to offend than his successor on the throne of St. Peter.
Each Pope has his own teaching style, and it is obvious that with Francis, adherence to protocol and upholding custom is not his way. His strength is communicating parts of the Catholic faith in a simple, direct and visible way.
But bluntness is a double-edged sword, and some of his speeches and sermons have offended some of the papacy's biggest supporters. This, of course, counters the image of Francis as the “gentle, pastoral shepherd.” In sifting through media reports, I was shocked by how often the Pope criticized Christians and by the severity of his insults.
I felt inspired by conversations with members of the clergy to compile a compendium of papal invective, calling it, tongue firmly in cheek, “The Pope Francis Little Book of Insults.”
It is not a real book, of course. (This should have been obvious by the fact that I offered a 20% discount to anyone who directed one of the Pope’s insults at a bookstore cashier.) Rather, it's an online litany of the surprising and sometimes slashing one-liners in Francis' verbal arsenal.
Indeed, here's some of the names the Pope has actually called people: "pickled pepper-faced Christians," "closed, sad, trapped Christians," "defeated Christians," “liquid Christians,” "creed-reciting, parrot Christians," and, finally, those "watered-down faith, weak-hoped Christians."
Catholics who focus on church traditions are "museum mummies," the Pope says. Nuns who fail to inspire faith in the church are "old maids," and the Vatican hierarchy has at times been "the leprosy of the papacy," in Francis' words.
Indeed, men of the cloth face the brunt of Francis' fulminations. He has called some of them “vain” butterflies, “smarmy” idolators and “priest-tycoons.” He’s described some seminarians as potential “little monsters.”
The Pope didn't say these things just to insult people, of course. Rather, he was often making a larger point about the kind of church he wants to lead: open, merciful and unafraid.
But at the same time, some Catholics have felt alienated by Francis’s criticisms, as if they are under attack. In blasting the status quo, it can sometimes seem as if the Pope is slighting the most faithful members of the church.
To be honest, reaction to my satirical “Pope Francis Little Book of Insults” has varied.
Some readers are so amused that they want to see the book really published so they can buy a copy. Others are outraged that I could dream up something so “disloyal” to the Pope. (I am hopeful that our Holy Father has a healthy sense of humor.)
I am also hopeful that, over time, Catholics will become accustomed to this pontiff’s style of teaching, even if it contradicts the shallow media image of “Francis the Friendly Pope,” as one well-known website calls him.
Speaking of media, Pope Francis hasn’t left journalists out of the fun. In a recent address, he called them “fomenters of coprophagia!”
If you don’t know what it means, look it up. But whatever you do, don’t complain and be like “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.”
After all, as Pope Francis says, nobody likes a “sourpuss.”
Laurence England lives in Brighton, England, and writes the blog That The Bones You Have Crushed May Thrill. The views expressed in this column belong to England.
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