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

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.

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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.

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