In politics, maybe even in life, perception frequently becomes reality. If enough people see you as a winner, then you will be treated like a winner, which means that your calls, even to important strangers whom you have never met, are promptly put through.
Everything becomes a poll. When other candidates, including former rivals, push to appear on the same platform with you, angle to be photographed in the same picture with you or seek to introduce their closest relatives to you, each of these is, for you, a positive poll.
Last week, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a real poll that found that American Catholics give the new leader of the Catholic Church an 84 percent favorable rating (42 percent “very favorable” and just 5 percent unfavorable). Pope Francis, less than a month in office, is enjoying what could be called a real political honeymoon.
If you want proof of the new pontiff’s popularity, look at the total about-face toward Pope Francis, the former cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, by Argentina’s populist President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
In Argentina, the two had disagreed on public policy, from divorce laws to same-sex marriage, and she had prevailed. But Kirchner, responsive to her anti-clerical supporters, never chose to forge an alliance to aid the Argentine poor by working with then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had refused the chauffeur-driven limousine and the bishop’s palace to instead take the bus to work and live in a two-room apartment where he could cook his own meals.
Unprepared for the waves of popularity the modest Pope Francis would inspire both in Argentina and around the globe, Kirchner barely acknowledged his election to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. Scrambling to recover, she flew to Rome, where after a private lunch with Francis, watched on TV by most of their countrymen, she posed, respectfully, for dozens of photos with him and then miraculously discovered their shared passion for caring for the poor. As I said, everything is a poll.
How has this son of Italian immigrants to Argentina evoked such positive reactions in so many different people, including your faithful correspondent? Consider the Holy Thursday ceremony recalling the Last Supper, where Christ, to teach His disciples what it meant to be a servant, washed the feet of the 12. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had celebrated the washing of the feet not in a splendid cathedral, but among the poorest and most marginalized of his neighbors — in jails, AIDS hospices, and homes for single mothers and their babies.
Thus on Holy Thursday 2013 did the 76-year-old Francis become the first pope to kneel on the stone floor of a juvenile detention center in Rome, there to wash, to dry and to kiss the feet of a dozen young prisoners, including those of two Muslims and of two women.
As the Jesuit scholar and writer the Rev. Tom Reese has pointed out, in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio “fought the Argentine government when they cut benefits for poor people. He is very concerned about the grave impact of globalization on workers … .” And, yes, he was roundly criticized by Catholic conservatives because he entered into a prayer service with evangelicals in Argentina. On matters of church teaching, there is unlikely with Pope Francis to be any major disagreements with the theology of Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II.
The moral costs of the sex abuse crimes against powerless children by Catholic priests, enabled and abetted by powerful Catholic bishops, are still incalculable. The estrangement from the church of the young continues. A new pope is not the silver bullet for the church’s problems. His honeymoon will not last forever. But a humble shepherd who resists ermine and Prada and who cares most for the poor, the strangers and the powerless can truly lift the spirits.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.