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How come that empty papal chair has become so widely interpreted as symbolic, even sinister? Is this part of a curial anti-Francis conspiracy?

What exactly is the meaning of that ‘Enigma of the Empty Chair’? Everyone seems agreed that there must be one

By on Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Pope Francis's now famous empty chair (AP)

Pope Francis's now famous empty chair (AP)

One Vatican specialist (Sandro Magister) headlined a recent article thus: The Hundred Days of Francis and the Enigma of the Empty Chair. And there it was, at the top of his and a hundred other articles, now the most famous chair in Christendom, conspicuously empty, with all around it immaculately becassocked curial cardinals, bishops and other monsignori and a few lay people. Addressing these in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelisation, explained that the Pope was not coming because of an “urgent commitment that could not be delayed”. Well, and what’s wrong with that as an explanation? Sandro Magister was inclined to make more of it than that: “His sudden refusal to listen to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven”, he wrote, “…is the seal on the beginning of a pontificate that is difficult to decipher.”

He was not the only one regarding that empty throne-like chair as full of symbolic meaning, though few thought of it as a refusal to listen to Beethoven’s ninth. Pictures of the “empty chair” were splashed all over the Italian press and then the internet, with pundits such as the church historian Alberto Melloni styling it a “metaphor for a rejection of imperial pomp”. Some even said it was a deliberate “snub” by the Pope of the Roman Curia. One leading Italian daily had Francis declaring “I am not a Renaissance prince,” though without quite claiming he actually used those words.

John L Allen had a simple explanation for the story: “Here’s a recipe for overinterpretation: Start with intense public fascination with a new pope and add a basic lack of substantive movement on matters of policy and personnel. Sprinkle in the coincidence of the new regime reaching its 100-day mark and mix with a slow news cycle.”

Well, if we rule out the theory of a papal snub of the curial monsignori, how about another theory: what about a curial conspiracy against the Pope? How come that photo of the empty chair became, and so quickly, such an “enigma”? How did it get itself plastered all over the Italian media? Why, as soon as it was known that the Pope wasn’t coming, wasn’t the chair simply removed before the announcement of his non-appearance was made? And why, anyway, was that big white throne placed so conspicuously in the middle of the hall, at a considerable distance from other members of the audience, as though the Pope, rather than the musicians who were to play Beethoven’s ninth, was supposed to be the real centre of attention?

John L Allen has a plausible explanation for the Pope’s absence: “Papal ambassadors, or nuncios, from around the world were in Rome last week for a conference, including a session with Francis on Friday. Since he does not come out of the world of Vatican diplomacy, Francis apparently felt his time Saturday evening would be better spent getting to know these guys, given that many of them were returning to their posts Sunday afternoon or today. That familiarity is especially important given that some of them may be in line for other Vatican positions that Francis shortly will have to fill, including the all-important role of Secretary of State.

“In other words, his withdrawal from the concert may actually illustrate his work ethic more than a rejection of Renaissance ostentation.”

But what if that empty chair does, in fact, convey a message, which, if not deliberate, is still one which conveys part of who the Pope is and how he operates? The following day, he gave his regular Sunday Angelus blessing in St Peter’s Square, and told young people not to be afraid of “going against the current.” That in fact, is just what he himself was doing the previous evening, and what he has been doing ever since his election as Pope, if “the current” he has been “going against” is interpreted as how he is supposed by Vatican insiders to behave. Pope Benedict would certainly have turned up at the concert: but then, the event was probably more his kind of thing.

Father Z has an amusing take on the event: “Perhaps”, he speculates, “this is part of [Pope Francis’s] continuing deconstruction of the papal person: listening to concerts of classical music (this time, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) is not what El Pueblo does, thus he doesn’t do it.

“Or, maybe he doesn’t like the concert thing, which was clearly organized with Benedict in mind. The other part of me, however, the Romanized part, is wondering if the Holy Father didn’t use an occasion when he knew where all of his ‘handlers’ were going to be, and how long they would be there, to have a one-on-one meeting with someone who knows what is going on in the Vatican and where the reform is most necessary. After those years in Rome I have a conspiratorial streak. Either way, the Pope is keeping everyone guessing, and – in the Curia – on edge.”

I have to admit that I find the thought of all those curial prelates, sitting there “on edge”, listening to Beethoven declaring that “aller menschen werden brueder”, and uneasily wondering what exactly Pope Francis is up to, curiously gratifying.