What I’ve Learned About Popularity From Pope Francis

Real Talk | Claudia Rojas | February 21, 2016

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TIME magazine called Pope Francis the People’s Pope in 2013, naming him Person of the Year. Pope Francis has his humble beginnings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. There, he was Cardinal and Archbishop and walked among cities filled with poverty and violence.

As the first Pope from Latin America, many eyes are on him, and I’m not an exception.

Although I’m not Catholic, I eagerly watched news coverage of Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. in September 2015. Around that time, the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service conducted a survey that showed that 52% of Americans didn’t know the Pope was coming to town, while 69% of Catholic Americans knew about his visit. The survey also found that 67% of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Pope.

Pope Francis Visits the United States Capitol by Architect of the Capitol

Following the Pope’s visit, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted a survey that found that 57% of Americans had not paid attention to news coverage on the Pope’s visit. The same percentage also had an opinion of the Pope, and of those persons, 77% have a favorable opinion of him.

I don’t find Pope Francis’ modest fame in the U.S. his fault, nor do I blame media coverage.

I, like many, first learned about popularity in middle school, and I understand it a lot more the older and further from cool I go–think future poet and educator. What I know today is best put in the words of Vanna Bonta, an Italian writer and actress: “Popularity is not an indication of quality.” Pope Francis is a remarkable person. The Pope’s many actions have created a positive impression on people. He has washed and kissed prisoners’ feet, appointed new Catholic leaders to care for the poor, and kept an open-mind about gay marriage.

I remember the temptation to miss class to see him in Washington, DC, but at rethinking traffic, settled for watching Pope Francis, also known as Papa Francisco, on Univision, a major Spanish-speaking network.

During his visit to the U.S., Pope Francis also made stops in Pennsylvania and New York. He covered a lot of ground on his Popemobile and helicopter. The New York Times summarized the highlights of his message as the following: protect the environment, condemn the death penalty, care for the poor, treat foreigners fairly, and so much more love.

“This human awareness, taking all threats to human rights seriously, is necessary in a world that constantly indulges hate.”

This past week, I found myself watching Pope Francis again. He completed his tour of Mexico on Wednesday, February 17th. The message was similar to his message for the U.S., but Pope Francis got very real and vocal.

Pope Francis championed for honest leaders, indigenous culture, and human rights.

One of Pope Francis’ most memorable moments has been his response to a Donald Trump question during an interview. The Pope answered without using Trump’s name, saying that “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”

Pope Francis and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto
Pope Francis, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, and children (AFP/Getty Images)

Republicans reacted right away. Donald Trump had more than a few words to say such as suggesting that the Mexican government had pitied the Pope against Mr. Trump. Trump was also upset that his faith was questioned, and he started retweeting images of the Vatican City’s own walls, which were built long before Pope Francis came to the Vatican City and don’t require passports for entrance. Other Republicans felt strongly against a Pope giving “political direction.”

I can understand Republican reactions.

I never imagined the Pope paying attention to a politician, and I think this speaks wonders about Pope Francis. He is a man with a heart and eyes. This human awareness, taking all threats to human rights seriously, is necessary in a world that constantly indulges hate.

CCN’s Religion Editor, Daniel Burke, reported on Friday that Mr. Trump wasn’t “in a fight” with the Pope as
the political candidate declared on Thursday evening. Mr. Trump wants voters to know he is “Pro-Pope,” which is good news for the 20% of voters who are Catholic.


The Twitter world is also Pro-Pope; he was the second most followed world leader in 2015 with about 20 million followers. Pope Francis as a religious leader for the 21st century has the power to change negative views the secular world may have of religion while also modernizing religious doctrine. Whether he gains or loses popularity isn’t actually important–it’s just fun. Our best leaders aren’t always most loved when they’re alive.

Abraham Lincoln was killed in his pursuits for change. At one point in time, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was called “a monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide” by The Chicago Times. In another example, Martin Luther King, Jr died in 1968, and polls conducted by Gallup between 1963 and 1967, showed King wasn’t a big deal to most Americans, except in 1964 when he earned 4th place in the Top 10 Most Admired list and in 1965 when he moved to 6th place.

I’m not suggesting death is a leader’s best chance for a popularity boost, but I am saying that popularity is not the most reliable or effective measure of a person.


Featured Image: “Pope Francis Photo 2″ Alfredo Borba under CC BY-SA 4.0