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Molly CahillMarch 31, 2023
pope francis greets medical workers in a hospital in 2021Pope Francis greets hospital workers at Gemelli hospital in this file photo taken in Rome July 11, 2021, when the pope had been in the hospital for 10 days to recover from a scheduled colon surgery. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In my role at America, I see some of the worst corners of social media. It has broken my heart to see Catholics using Twitter and Facebook to attack one another personally. But I must admit that over the past few years, it has thickened my skin to the point of desensitization. Insults and even threats directed toward others online barely register with me anymore. Outside of the moderated conversation we host in the comments section of our own site, I have come to expect a level of online discourse that is passive-aggressive at best and outright hateful at worst. It’s sad to even write that, but unfortunately it’s the truth.

Pope Francis is not spared in this toxic online atmosphere; the criticisms I see of him are as fierce as those of anyone. Particularly since his motu proprio “Traditionis Custodes,” which was released in 2021 and significantly restricted the celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, some Catholics have been firmly anti-Francis. The social media vitriol has reached our accounts, calling the pope every name in the book and decrying his role in what some believe to be the church’s downfall. But the seeds of this criticism, much of it ideologically driven, were planted long before, and as much at the local level—in families and parishes—as in the international social media community.

The bad and ugly don’t surprise me anymore, but I realized this week that the good does: When the news broke that Pope Francis had been rushed to the hospital after experiencing chest pain, I was shocked to see, instead of snide remarks or ideological buzzwords, an outpouring of support online. More specifically, I saw hundreds of commenters on our site and, on social media more generally, offering their prayers.

Most Catholics do not spend their days caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the Vatican or the wording of the church’s documents or decrees that serve as fuel for much of the online arguments and polarizing comments I spend my days reviewing.

While our staff at America follows and reports on Catholic news (and Vatican news in particular) every day, all year long, major secular news publications bring the big Vatican stories to a wider audience. Many Catholics learned of the recent death of Pope Benedict XVI through these mainstream outlets. When the news of Pope Francis’ hospitalization hit the mainstream press this week, fears about the pope’s health, and even life, were widespread. Thankfully it seems that the pope is on the mend.

But the reaction to a story with this wide of a reach is an important reality check for those of us who pay attention to the pope’s activities on a daily basis: Most Catholics do not. Most Catholics do not spend their days caught up in the nitty-gritty details of the Vatican or the wording of the church’s documents or decrees that serve as fuel for much of the online arguments and polarizing comments I spend my days reviewing.

One illustrative example: A Pew Research Center survey found that two-thirds of American Catholics were not aware of the pope’s Latin Mass restrictions. But for the 7 percent of respondents who said they had heard “a lot” about the restrictions, this issue has a primacy of place. Those of us who are regularly in the weeds would do well to remember that, rather than lose heart over these arguments, we can take heart in the fact that most Catholics aren’t, in fact, arguing over some of these issues.

In a moment of potential crisis, Pope Francis was not so controversial a figure after all; he was a man in need of prayer, and people wanted to pray for him.

So how do most Catholics (and even non-Catholics) respond when church and Vatican news become global stories? From my observations, many of them react with respect, with reverence. I’m willing to bet that the commenters who shared their prayers for Francis’ health don’t all vote the same way. I’m willing to bet that they belong to different kinds of parishes and attend Mass with differing degrees of regularity. I’m willing to bet that some of them have attended the Traditional Latin Mass many times and others have never been to one. I’m willing to bet that some of them love Pope Francis and some have real disagreements with him. In some contexts and conversations, those differences are relevant to the discussion. But in this moment, they were not, and the commenters didn’t try to make them so. Instead, whether their politics or ideologies tend to align with Francis or not, their comments were rooted in respect for him—as the pope, yes, but also simply as a person. In a moment of potential crisis, Pope Francis was not so controversial a figure after all; he was a man in need of prayer, and people wanted to pray for him.

Of course, some people fail to respond to these situations with civility and charity. This will always happen. I don’t intend to minimize the very real divisions in the church and the very real pain that has come from them. I am simply offering an example of people being good, in case you, like me, have started to lose hope that it’s there. In case you, like me, have started to lose hope in the future of respectful dialogue or in the hope that the spirit of our Catholic faith is borne out in practice. If you had started to doubt, let this be a reminder from a fellow sometimes-doubter: There are places where we can put down our ideological weapons. Some things are still sacred, and the care for the health and well-being of an old man who has lived a long and full life (and who also happens to be the pope) is one of them. Prayer in times of uncertainty is another.

When he was first introduced to the world as pope, Francis asked the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square (and the millions more watching around the world) to pray for him. It’s a request he has often repeated throughout his papacy, and it’s one that so many have responded to this week in the face of his health scare. If we learn who we really are when tragedy strikes, this week I learned something good about the Catholic community, no matter how much it might have surprised me. While a loud minority fights and jeers and only further polarizes, there are still many Catholics out there who look to the pope with respect and who pray for his well-being. I choose to be part of the second camp.

 

I pray that Pope Francis has a long life still to live, with years ahead that will be as meaningful as his previous decades. I pray that he remains healthy and free from pain to the end, and that in the midst of the busy schedule that makes him the pope of the people, I pray that he will find time for the rest and the care that will keep him well. In the newsworthy moments and on the quieter days to come, may we find it in our hearts to be in communion, all of us, and to pray for Pope Francis.

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