Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S.

Not every word a pope speaks is “ex cathedra.” In fact, it’s quite rare to proclaim something “from the chair” (of St. Peter) as a matter of authoritative teaching in the realm of faith and morals.

Nowadays, much of what Pope Francis communicates comes when he is standing. Take, for example, the popemobile. Alessandro Gisotti, the director of the Holy See’s Press Office, highlighted the message recently received on the streets of Panama, in the image of so many young people “who hugged each other after having seen you only for an instant.”

The pope also stands when speaking with the press. During those in-flight events, we see another distinctive way the pope communicates. As he has done on previous trips, the Pope Francis likes to poke fun at the press.

On the flight to Rome following World Youth Day, in answer to a question about why young people distance themselves from the church, he replied, “generally I think that the first (reason) is the lack of witness from Christians, priests, bishops.” Then he remarked, “I do not say popes because that’s too much.” And he laughed, then promptly added “but also them.”

Later, he was surprised by a reporter who referenced the pope’s lunch with young pilgrims and then proceeded to ask about expectations for the upcoming meeting of bishops to discuss the global crisis in the Church. With a wide grin and an appreciative nod, the pope quipped, “This one is clever! He began from the trip and then went there … well done! Thanks for the question,” which he then answered freely.

On the return flight from Abu Dhabi, Pope Francis offered his impression about a little girl who broke through the security line and ran to the popemobile. He expressed amazement, saying, “That little girl is courageous! … That little girl has a future, a future! And I would dare say: poor husband!”

Before that press conference ended, in keeping with custom, the Holy Father congratulated one of the journalists who was on board her 150th papal flight. When the crew brought out a cake, he said: “They told me we are celebrating Valentina’s 150th birthday! … But I don’t see her so mummified.” The video doesn’t show the exchange, but we can presume Valentina laughed along with the others.

Some may think the world’s spiritual leader should not joke around. Seen in another perspective, however, humor can be virtuous. When it is, communication benefits.

In his “Introduction to the Devout Life” (III:27), the eloquent doctor of the church, St. Francis de Sales, makes reference to the Greek virtue of eutrapelia. He describes it as “joking words, spoken by way of modest and innocent merriment.” It’s a kind of humor among friends that comes with “unaffected freedom, confidence, and familiarity cleverly expressed.”

The saint is quick to add, however, that we must beware of passing from mirthful banter to ridicule, derision and mockery. Even among friends, and even if unintended, when laughter occurs at the expense of our neighbor’s dignity, the virtue becomes a vice.

Read only in print, the pope’s responses might seem out of character for one whom even the journalists address as “Your Holiness.” But the press corps traveling with him sees him for who he is. Caroline Wyatt, from the BBC, once wrote, “even the skeptics and the critics of the Roman Catholic Church might find this pope hard to resist in person. He is disarming, and has a personality that feels like a force of nature: irrepressible, jocular, open. He was dubbed in US (magazine) the ‘People’s Pope,’ and you can see why.”

More important than popularity, the papal banter actually serves his pastoral mission. Just as his apostolic journeys offer a “live” encounter with the joy of the Gospel, so do his press conferences. Standing in their midst, Pope Francis creates a cordial environment among reporters corralled on a plane. His good-natured humor helps make him “real” to them, thereby reducing the communications distance between them.

By evoking smiles and laughter, Pope Francis acts as a pastor drawing close to his flock — those on the flight and those who will read the media reports.  Keeping the purpose of the pope’s playfulness in mind, we might take a lesson from how he communicates.

As Gisotti suggested to the press, we who are adults could learn from the image at World Youth Day: “Young people when they are happy, share their joy, they don’t keep it for themselves.”

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Father Dailey is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Wayne.