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Pope Francis is preaching by his behaviour

The pope’s new style does not reflect badly on his predecessor

By on Monday, 18 March 2013

I'm glad my parents called me Francis now... (AP)

I'm glad my parents called me Francis now... (AP)

In a post in response to my last blog about Pope Francis, James Moriarty asked, “Were you baptised “Francis” or did you simply choose the name later?” The answer is, I was baptised “Francis” even though, as Jabba Papa has kindly pointed out in his post following the same blog, I’m not a boy. I was born in a nursing home in Guildford run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Divine Motherhood, an order inspired by St Francis of Assisi. So my parents decided to call me after this great saint. Of course they could have done this and still used the female spelling of the name; for some reason they didn’t – and it has caused some confusion for me later in life, obviously. But now that the Holy Father has honoured the name of the saint in his own unique fashion, I am most glad of my parents’ eccentric choice.

But that’s enough about me. This blog is (again) about Pope Francis. If he knew I was blogging about him he would probably respond, “Blog about St Francis and his love of the poor.” And St Francis, who would have hated to have attention drawn to him, would have wanted me to talk about Christ, love of whom produced on his body the signs of the stigmata – the first person who is recorded as having received this extraordinary mark of divine favour. Just now it seems as though the winds of change – to use Harold Macmillan’s phrase – are blowing through the halls of the Vatican. They begin with a telling remark made by Cardinal Dolan about the process of discernment before the conclave began: “You look for a man who reminds you of Jesus”: how rare, how simple and how right. And Cardinal Bergoglio, whose shoes were so old and shabby as he prepared to fly to Rome that his friends bought him a new pair, and who had bought an economy class return flight ticket, was that man.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston is said to have commented about Bergoglio’s dramatic change of circumstances, “He will be a prisoner in a museum”. But this is palpably not true. No recent pope has been a “prisoner” in that sense and you only live in a museum if you have chosen to become a fossil. Pope Francis gives every indication that this will never happen to him; from his choice of name, his decision not to wear the usual ermine-lined cape when he first appeared on the balcony to greet the crowds, his further decision to wear his (new) black shoes rather than the traditional red ones, his forgoing of certain other minor trappings of his position, all suggest a man who is bringing his own brand of spirituality and simplicity to his office. Does this reflect badly on the style of his predecessor, now Pope Emeritus? No; but Pope Benedict was a European and a churchman whose early adulthood was shaped by the brand of pomp and formality of Pius XII’s papal court, and who had spent years in Rome as head of a major Vatican department. Pope Francis, who has spent his entire life so far at the furthest corner of the earth as he put it, living for years in a frugal and Spartan style, simply sees no reason to change this style for the sake of the high office he has just assumed.

St Francis told his friars, “Preach always; sometimes use words.” Pope Francis, generally thought to be a man of economical utterance, is already preaching by his behaviour. He has asked the clergy and religious of Buenos Aires not to attend his inauguration but to use the money they would have spent on the fares for charitable purposes (though I bet they still want to come). There is also a moving photo of him, as Cardinal, sitting quietly on a bus in Buenos Aires, wearing ordinary clerical dress and surrounded by the usual crush of humanity. It reminded me of a wonderful illustration in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper, of Christ standing patiently in a dole queue.

Two years ago the then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke about himself at a gathering: “At 74, I am about to enter old age and I’m not reluctant. I am getting ready for it and I want to be vintage wine, not sour wine… An old man is called to peace, to tranquillity. I ask this grace for myself.” One asks: what peace or tranquillity will he now have as pope, running such an unwieldy, secretive and fractious household? The answer is: the same interior peace and tranquillity that he has carried within him for many years – years in which he was forming his thoughts and views on the Church. In the history of this Church, he once remarked, “the true renovators are the saints. They are the true reformers [like] Francis of Assisi, who introduced a new attitude towards poverty in Christianity when faced with the luxury, pride and vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time.”

A final thought: Pope Francis has said that years ago he was moved to imitate the late John Paul II in saying a full Rosary daily. Now that he himself is Pope, perhaps some of his fellow cardinals could begin to imitate his personal austerity and lack of ostentation when they return to their dioceses? Voluntary poverty, like charity, begins at home.

  • James Moriarty

    Thanks for the clarification about your name!

    Interesting article. I foresee Pope Francis complementing the achievements of his two immediate predecessors, rather than going against them. But not everyone else sees it that way.

  • Peter

    “Voluntary poverty, like charity, begins at home”

    How so very true, and it is that voluntary poverty which brings spiritual renewal to a parish, a diocese, a country.

    Perhaps we could reverse the effects of dwindling Catholicism in Britain if all the clergy were to take the lead in that direction.

  • AsherLev

    “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
    St Francis of Assisi

  • Peccator

    Thank-you for your always excellent posts; they have often helped me to understand the Faith better.

    I am deeply concerned about Pope Francis’s “simplicity,” although I have little doubt it is genuine.

    First, I fear it confuses personality with office. The papacy has existed for 2000 years, and its symbols, traditions, and ceremonial belong not to the personality of any pope, but to the office. To do away with many of its symbols and traditions (within minutes, no less) distracts from the office, calls attention to the office-holder, and does not seem humble. It certainly comes off as a repudiation of past popes, especially Pope Benedict, and so obscures the continuity of the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church. It was the effort to make that continuity visible that lay behind Benedict’s sartorial and ceremonial choices. With Benedict we had a man who disappeared into his office. Now I fear the office is disappearing and all we will be left with is a man. A good man, but not a good representation of the continuity of the centuries–which is precisely what Peter must do: preserve the Faith that has been handed down to us. If we cannot recognize that the Faith proclaimed today is the same proclaimed by Pius XII and by Gregory the Great, and by Peter himself, how can we believe it?

    Second, this “simplicity” reduces Christ to his human nature and sufferings. Yes, Christ was a poor carpenter and itinerant preacher; he is also God gloriously transfigured, resurrected, and ascended. This is not only false, but a great impediment to evangelization. Especially given modernity’s inability to see the spiritual, the transcendent, and the divine, we are in desperate need of signs that point to God’s glory. If we lose sight of his glory, we reduce Christ to the greatest man who ever lived, and we are just as damned as if he had not risen from the dead. The New Evangelization requires a greater, not a lesser focus on this glory.

    Third, men need splendor. It is in our nature. When the Church does not use earthly splendor to point us to the divine splendor, men turn elsewhere. This is what the iconoclastic and anti-ceremonial furies of the Reformation showed. With their churches denuded, their clerics in simple clothes, did Northern Europeans live simpler lives? Not at all. They invented mercantilism, capitalism, materialism. They divorced splendor from God, and were left with gorgeous stuff and a God who, within a few centuries, they had completely forgotten.

    The splendor of the papal office, as that of all ecclesiastical offices, and most of all the Liturgy, points to and honors God; we give Him our very best because we know all things come from Him, and by so doing we show this to the world.

  • Guest

    The best way to “make poverty history” is to “make poverty voluntary”.

    God bless Pope Francis!

  • Brother Burrito

    The best way to “make poverty history” is to “make poverty voluntary”.

    God bless Pope Francis!.

    (sorry for the double post. I’m new here)

  • Julian Lord

    It’s possible Pope Francis is simply waiting for his current pair of black ones to wear out before getting himself a new pair of red shoes — but I agree strongly with your analysis of his preaching by behaviour.

    Particularly evident, I’d say, by his behaviour at yesterday’s gracefully simple, and yet intrinsically Catholic celebration of the Mass at the parish of Santa Anna :

  • Julian Lord

    Second, this “simplicity” reduces Christ to his human nature and sufferings

    No, I disagree — his giving of the Holy Mass seems to be deeply informed by a strong Faith in God, in the Spirit, and in the Real Presence.

    Third, men need splendor. It is in our nature

    I agree — but don’t you think it’s a bit early to conclude that the Holy Father is forgetful of this ?

  • bert

    Father your behaviour on newsnight last week dressed like you were was in my view BAD BEAVIOUR!!!

  • Kevin

    Excellent comment.

    On the subject of splendour I balked at this line in the article:
    ‘You look for a man who reminds you of Jesus’: how rare, how simple and how right. And Cardinal Bergoglio, whose shoes were so old and shabby…was that man.”

    Would the soldiers at the Crucifixion have cast lots for those shoes?

  • Jonathan

    I’m not sure it is safe to take this passage as an indication that Jesus wore Armani! We know that the events of the Crucifixion recorded in the Gospels fulfilled the letter of prophecy. We know nothing of the footwear of Christ.

  • Jonathan

    I disagree. I do not need splendour (and I have no evidence that it is in my nature). Even if I am wrong, it remains debatable as to whether red hats and shoes are inherently splendid. And truly, the continuities of faith do not reside within them. I honestly do not believe that St Peter wore such garments (or anything that bore more than a passing resemblance to clothing adopted in later centuries), or that the dignity of his successors now depends upon the colour and style of their official footwear. Personally as I very glad indeed that the new Pope is indicating a readiness to distinguish between what matters and what does not.

  • Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

    There are people becoming Priests or Religious with mixed motives.
    Following Jesus and his call is not necessarily the topmost priority.

    Here the people of God have to intervene to change the situation for the best. Please don’t remain as “LAY” people. BE ROOTED in GOD’S WORD by regular meditation on the same and the People of God will be true to their name. They will make the difference in favour of Christ the Lord.

    Thomas Poovathinkal SSP

  • James M

    An excellent and very perceptive post :) A Catholic Pope knows he is not over Sacred Tradition, but is subject to it and the guardian of it, and that he must conform the Church to it, in Faith and Liturgy & spirit alike. Popes used to know this.

  • James M

    “I foresee Pope Francis complementing the achievements of his two immediate predecessors”

    ## That is the problem.

  • scary goat

    Yes, I would agree with most of this. The robes etc. come with the office and they are to the Glory of God. The clerical dress for normal use shows the simplicity. There is a difference between the priest (as a man) who should be humble and simple, visiting the sick etc. and the priest (in the person of Christ) offering the Sacraments. The Pope, or any priest should be simple and humble when he is performing those functions which require simplicity and humility, but when acting in his “official” role he should be duly attired. Pope Benedict’s use of the more extravagant traditional Papal attire weren’t a personal “fashion statement” were they? And I do agree that an about-face by the new Pope is inclined to look like a criticism of the previous Pope. I am all in favour of simplicity and humility in the intentions, behaviour and dress of clerics in their day to day ministries….but I don’t see why this “simplicity” needs to be applied to official vestments etc. To draw a parallel with normal day to day life, much as a person might be simple and humble in their general attire, you wouldn’t turn up to a wedding in your jeans, trainers and T-shirt, would you? And what sort of a statement would it make if you did?

  • LocutusOP

    I quite agree, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

    I certainly don’t like the view Mrs. Phillips seems to share of Pope Benedict being a man accustomed to pomp. Before he became Pope, Pope Benedict lived a very simple life. All his efforts before, during and after were geared torwards proclaiming the dignity and beauty of the Petrine office, and it was never directed toward himself.

    Much as I like Pope Francis’s humility, I admire Pope Benedict’s much more, for his deflected all attention away from him and onto the divine mission entrusted towards him. Pope Benedict’s humility was one which forced him to humble himself in the face of tradition, even when that tradition was not stricly speaking necessary for the transmission of faith.

    Pope Benedict’s humility brought us back our venerated Mass. It brought back sacred music to the liturgy. It was a humility which submitted itself to beauty, to truth, to mission.

    I don’t know enough about Pope Francis to have any opinion, but I certainly hope that he won’t turn his back on beauty just to focus on simple piety. God deserves our very best, and that includes all the symbolism that we can afford him.

  • Peter

    “They invented mercantilism, capitalism, materialism”

    I think you will find that these were invented not in Northern Europe but in Renaissance Italy. It was the humanism of Renaissance Italy that first divorced human splendour from God.

  • Deodatus

    This Pope has consistently shown his commitment both in teaching and gesture to Christ’s beloved poor and vulnerable. Despite media attempts to denigrate him or sully him with simplistic reportage from a hugely difficult period in the history of his country, it is this Blessed consistency which brings hope to the Church -and the world- as he assumes Peter’s Chair.

  • Jonathan

    Come off it. The Transfiguration was not a public event. Jesus did not employ sartorial ‘splendour’ to convey his message to the common folk to whom he showed himself. As far as I understand, manifestations of Christ’s divinity during his incarnation did not anything to do with physical adornment. Or have I missed something important?

    I know of no situation at any time in which people have abandoned Catholicism or Christianity en masse /because of any reduction in the display of material objects/. I’m not saying the material side of things cannot be valuable, but you need to be a bit more careful when making big statements such as ‘men need splendor. It is in our nature. When the Church does not use earthly splendor to point us to the divine splendor, men turn elsewhere’. Remember that we’re talking about here includes matters like the wearing of silly hats and shoes that make our senior clergy look like self-regarding space aliens rather than servants of God with a salvific message. Here’s my big statement: I do not believe it is unchristian to think that they do not look in the least bit splendid. I think it is quite natural.

  • anglicanus

    Pope Francis is clearly making a statement by discarding some of the trappings of his office. The agenda is about reform and renewal – rightly. I just wish he showed some taste in his vestments! Will he continue the “reform of the reform” begun by Pope Benedict? Will he support the Ordinariate? I suspect his interest in it is very limited. Pope B admired the music and liturgy of the CoE, being a highly cultivated man, and sought to provide for some of this inheritance to be brought into the communion of Rome. I doubt Pope Francis has any interest in the CoE or Anglicans (or music?). I suspect the Ordinariate will dwindle – and RC traditionalists may be increasingly isolated.

  • Mr Grumpy

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Pope Benedict but think we should beware of thinking that his is the only way. True, hair shirts are not meant for display (unless you are Moliere’s Tartuffe!) and especially not in the very presence of the Bridegroom. However, don’t poverty and simplicity need their visible symbols too? I’m reminded of St Francis’s tiny Portiuncula, encapsulated in a triumphalist Counter-Reformation basilica – perhaps Pope Francis will lead us to re-focus on the former rather than the latter.

  • Nesbyth

    Peccator, I thought your post very thoughtful and so I hope you don’t mind but I’ve printed it out for my file on the current Church. Thankyou

  • Nesbyth

    But the majority of new vocations in Europe and USA right now are in the traditional orders, so I don’t think your view of traditionalists possibly becoming increasingly isolated is valid. And this Pope, judging by his inaugural Mass, seems to be reasonably traditional vis-a-vis the liturgy. The Roman Canon and the Missa de Angelis….. not bad in my opinion.

  • scary goat

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that he never actually said that. Anyone got any reference for that?

  • Peccator

    Not at all. I hope it is helpful. God bless you.

  • cwandera

    Thank u for making Pope Francis pope.Amen.