A test of our love and understanding for Pope Francis has come in the form of a dreaded symbol: an empty chair. In view of an ‘urgent and non-postponable task’ last Saturday night, our Pope left his seat, smack-bang in the middle of the audience hall. The Pope missed a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. His decision was made suddenly, he did not broadcast details of the ‘task’, and he is reported to have asserted himself in brisk terms to the effect that, ‘I am not a Renaissance prince’.
It must have been a crushing disappointment to the musicians who were about to play for His Holiness. For many of them, it could have been the highpoint of their career. My heart goes out to them, because I would be upset and slighted had I prepared to perform for the Pope, and had he not shown up.
But, they were about to play for the most important leader in the Catholic world, and the majesty of his Office and the responsibilities that come with being Pope are inseparable. His Holiness has to make difficult, rash decisions if something ‘urgent’ and ‘unpostponable’ comes up.
The nature of being the number one leader in the Catholic Church is that there are some duties that cannot and must not be delegated. Just because we do not know the details of his duty on Saturday night is all the more reason why we cannot judge him. The confidentiality though, would point to something that was so sensitive that it was not made known to the more hard-of-hearing elderly cardinals who would ‘whisper’ it in such a loud voice that it would be picked up by the press.
Pope Francis’ actions have elicited a histrionic response in some quarters. At worst, some are rudely questioning his mental faculties. Or, some say it’s just ‘weird’ to miss out on a sublime musical experience. And others crib that he acted impolitely by snubbing his guests. We have to ask ourselves has the missed concert given Francis’ detractors, a stick to beat him?
But the most telling aspect of the reaction is that in some corners, there has been a the rapid change from love to hate for Francis. In his first 100 days, he enjoyed much adulation and praise. I would like to ask if it was a case of people not knowing the man and the Pope that they were celebrating? Perhaps a lot of the fondness for forthright Francis has been feigned.
Pope Francis is not a man for overstatement or flowery language, but is pithy and as his name suggests, frank. If it’s ‘urgent’ then it is ‘urgent’, and possibly a crisis or a situation of panic that cannot be ignored, lest havoc run riot.
It is not that the Pope is unmoved by music. He is an Edith Piaf fan, and was an avid dancer of the Tango in his youth. When he was growing up, he would sit with his mother on Saturdays and listen to opera on the radio. Reminiscing about this he has said: “It was just the most lovely thing.”
In the early days of his priesthood, Pope Francis took actions that set himself up for ridicule. In the 1970s, at the young age of 37, he was elected superior of the Jesuit province of Argentina. This was an enormous promotion and responsibility to be given to one so young. But, after he has held this post for six years, in 1980 he took a backseat and relegated himself to being a rector of a seminary, where he used to cook for the seminarians, when the main chef was off-work. He went from issuing orders to communities of Jesuits, to chopping piles of garlic for teenage seminarians. Later, when he was first a bishop, he eschewed fancy parties and instead chose to help out in soup kitchens, keep Aids victims company and made himself available – at a minute’s notice – to any priest who needed to speak to him urgently.
It is not out of character for Pope Francis to pass up an evening of entertainment at the risk of being seen as odd and anti-social. He could have pretended that all was well, kept up appearances and applauded the orchestra from his chair. It’s actually a greater sign of a person’s humility that they will threaten their reputation and popularity. Pope Francis is keenly intelligent, is a chemist by training and has a voracious appetite for literature. He knew that he would be cast in a bad light for missing Saturday’s concert. Yet, he missed it anyway, and no doubt feels the coldness of criticism.
Pope Francis measures his energy carefully, and conserves his strength for when he may have an unexpected trial – or when he includes people who are often ignored. Notice how he saves up his biggest smiles for children with disabilities. Let’s not forget that he took a child with cerebral palsy in his arms for a hug. He gave a young boy with Down’s Syndrome a spin in his popemobile. Pope Francis vacated his seat in the popemobile and offered it to boy who many would not give the mere right to life.
You see, that’s the funny thing about the Pope’s chair, no matter if it’s in the popemobile or in the concert hall: there’s only one chair, and only one ruling Pope, who decides when he sits in it, and when he does not.