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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.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Odd – I had the idea that Pope Francis, who likes to demonstrate his humility, would have made his apologies to those who had worked hard to organize the concert and to the musicians who also worked hard in their performances, explaining that his work (it must have been very important indeed!) must come first. There seems to be no record of this. Then perhaps he could have done so privately, for just as surely he would not wish to be thought uncaring, would he? Again some might think he was making a distinction between his likes/priorities and those of his predecessor – but why leave it until the concert had been staged when a quiet word earlier would have done the job without any adverse feelings? We hear a lot about empathy and looking at deeds not words these days, but it does not always appear among leaders, perhaps because they have much more important things to do?
    A thought has just occurred to me – maybe he was leaving an anti EU message -not having to listen to the EU anthem in the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony! Just kidding — ?

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I wondered myself about curial anti-Francis briefing in this case- after all, they have a lot more hotlines to the Italian media than he does. The ‘Pope Chatterbox’ line presumably comes from the same sort of source (ironically, considering what chatterboxes the curia are).

  • An onlooker

    And now we have a commission of enquiry into the Vatican Bank, there’s a lot going on.

  • Illinidiva

    I think the Papa Chatterbox is a quite endearing and truthful nickname. There is definitely nothing wrong with Francis’ tongue.

  • Isabel

    Very far fetched conclusions and “explanations” in this article. The author doesn’t address the core here: what the musicians and the choir must have felt; an enormous disappointent, to the point of grief. Can one treat a Whole orchestra and choir as “non grata”? What is their crime? That they did not play rock music instead? Why should it be of ay good that a Whole orchestra plus choir is used as an instrument to fulfil the wishes of the church becoming “poor”? Benedict, too, talked about a “poor church” years ago, but interestingly, not many listened then! Moreover, Benedict XVI would never, ever have cancelled this concert, and at the last minute, whatever important Work he may have had in front of him.
    The income of a musician is very, very low, throughout life, most people would never accept such extremely low incomes. but musicians do, since they know that they have been granted a great gift by God.
    But do people in general accept and respect this Gift of God to them?
    The main view seems to be: Down with what is genial, let’s adore mediocraty.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    Unfortunately I find his frequent utterances often very difficult to understand. He seems to like coded and convoluted messages rather than calling a spade a spade. Maybe it is my fault, but I found the fewer messages of Pope Benedict XVI much easier to follow.

  • Isabel

    “We must control our words and avoid putting people down”, sais pope Francis in his last audience, before his holiday.
    But isn’t that exactly what the musicians and the choir must now feel; that they were “put Down” and disregarded, when the pope chose to be absent…?
    Only the pope himself can know the exact reason for his conspicous absence,
    Still, all of this made me very, very sad.

  • Illinidiva

    Really… Francis is quite blunt. He definitely calls a spade a spade.

  • paulpriest

    I have to presume that His Holiness was called away for crucially imperative emergency reasons.
    That I must presume [unless I am confronted with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary]
    ..because anything less
    ..makes everything less…

  • paulpriest

    lot of human doings….think I’d prefer some human beings.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    For goodness sake! The musicians and choir are adults, and professionals, and it’s their day job. It was a good gig- they would have been paid. More disappointing for the audience, perhaps (like the little girl on someone’s knee in some of the pictures), but that’s life- sometimes things don’t work out they way you have been promised.

    Musicians expect this sort of thing- it happens to them all the time.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    If you read his book with Abraham Skorka, it explains his thinking on some of the themes he keeps coming back to (you might not like it, but that’s another story).

    I think the messages seem difficult to understand because he is preaching in a language not his own, and that is then being imperfectly rendered by translators.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I think you are right so to presume. It’s clear he intended to be there up until the last moment.

  • scary goat

    That’s quite interesting actually….he does seem blunt…but for the times a statement has been necessary afterwards to clarify what he meant, I’m not sure he is calling a spade a spade…or is he? Either his messages are convoluted and need explaining….or maybe he really does mean what he says and the clarifications and explanations are wishful thinking?

  • NatOns

    Of course it is not for the Holy Father to explain himself to us – nope! no zirree, not even to the inimitable, hip-shootin’, rootin’ tootin’ Fr Z. He is after all a Sovereign Pontiff – Pope Francis that is, not Fr Z – so we are duty bound to support him in whatever he decides is more important matter (again Pope Francis, not ..) A very different kind of prince and monarch is brought to mind in this rather early ‘silly season’ story; for heaven’s sake, the President of the United States of America does not have to eat broccoli if he doesn’t want to .. whatever the media make of it.

    Yet that ‘empty chair’ image, notwithstanding, is one that we should all take due note of, and hold it in mind when we contemplate the divinely allotted role of the Successor to Saint Peter .. as also to that of Simon Peter himself.

    God bless our Pope! Dear Lord only help him …

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I’m sorry this makes you sad, but I think you are projecting your own feelings onto the musicians. Why should we assume they felt anything of the sort?

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Is he actually saying any more than Benedict did, thought? Is it not just that more is being made public?

  • Benedict Carter

    “It’s clear he intended to be there up until the last moment.”

    Not sure about that, Sara. The word now is that he cunningly used the presence at the concert of members of the Curia to have a frank discussion with AN Other about Curial affairs well away from prying eyes.

    Hope it was that, because if it wasn’t, he really is just rude.

  • An onlooker

    Lots of human beings going about their human doings!!

  • Illinidiva

    Yeah.. I’m assuming that that sometimes happens to professional musicians. Famous, important people sometimes get busy and cancel. I’m sure that they shrugged it off and played the concert. Also, with the audience, perhaps it gave them a chance to focus on the actual musical performace. I’m hoping that they were there for that.. at least sort of. The concert wasn’t called off at the last minute because Francis deemed that Beethoven was too elitist. It went on with his apologies because something came up. Perhaps, this was a good reminder for the audience that they probably should have been there to listen to nice music and it shouldn’t have really mattered if the Pope showed up.

  • Illinidiva

    Francis really isn’t saying anything different, but he definitely has said more of it than Benedict. It really is a personality difference. Francis is just a huge people person who enjoys chatting and telling everyone his opinion about any topic. Benedict was the exact opposite.

  • paulpriest

    lot of humans going because of the doings of human doings.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    What I meant was that I imagine Benedict did just as much talking (to his friends), just not in public. Didn’t he also say Mass every day with his circle?

    My impression is that Francis is also an introvert (maybe not as much as Benedict), who has worked very hard on himself to make himself interact with people, which he tends to do in ones and twos, as introverts do. But he finds a way to reach the world by passing on the fruits of his daily contemplations to his morning congregations, and having them reported.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I think that is a bit rude, if so, but I stick to the view that only one person is really in a position to know exactly what choice he made there and why.

  • Kevin

    “the new regime reaching its 100-day mark and mix with a slow news cycle”

    Whose fault is it that the first 100 days of Francis’ papacy are a matter of “slow news”? I sincerely wish, for example, that the Holy Father’s pressing business was to prepare for a public showdown with the political proponents of abortion.

    If you follow the “first 100 days” link on the Wikipedia page for the Obama Administration, you read that in the first week of his presidency, Obama “ended the Mexico City Policy, which banned federal grants to international groups that provide abortion services or counseling”.

    Today, the President took time out to tweet his support for the filibustering of an anti-abortion bill in Texas. Talk about commitment!

  • LocutusOP

    I’m perplexed as to why they left the seat out in the open, making his absence more conspicuous than it had to be.

    Nonetheless, I can’t really see a good reading of this.

    If he cancelled at the last minute with the sentiments that have been implied – an urgent matter -, then it would seem he is pretty rude not to at least show the performers some token of appreciation, and I have a hard time seeing what could have been so important. I would be willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of tact.

    If it’s because he wanted to meet the nuncios – given that the meeting would have been planned months if not years before, it shows a distinct lack of organisation, which doesn’t bode well either.

  • LocutusOP

    To be fair to Pope Francis, that particular enemy of Christianity you mention had much more time campaigning and after the elections to decide on the particular evil misdeeds he wish to have imposed upon his inauguration.

  • Kevin

    Francis is a former Cardinal who is old enough to be Obama’s father. He has been “campaigning” for decades. He leads a one-party “state”.

    Can you imagine what the Democrats would have done by now if theirs was a one-party state? Obama’s ending of the Mexico City Policy merely put things back the way Clinton had had them. Same game different name. This is why they get to call themselves “progressives”. Because they make “progress” or die trying.

    It’s not as if “Catholics” Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi have not set it up for the Holy Father to undo their scandalizing quite emphatically.

    And yet I see us rolling on to the next papacy still quibbling over whether the SSPX is in full communion, to no known purpose.

  • LocutusOP

    It’s not as though I’m disagreeing with on whether the Pope could have been clearer, but he had at best a month to prepare and my point is that nothing prepares one for the Papacy, so he didn’t necessarily have an action plan in place in case he became Pope.

    In any case, I am in complete agreement with you about your proposed showdown and the sooner we get it done and dusted the better it will be for all parties.

  • Irenaeus of New York

    In my opinion, as long as the Chair of Peter is not left vacated like the concert chair, he can skip as many concerts as he likes.

  • $20596475

    Has anyone considered that maybe he was feeling unwell, but it was decided not to announce it as such because of the way such a piece of information might be spun by the media.

    This might be nothing more than a dodgy lunch!

  • Agnus

    The Church’s enemies, both within and without have now
    discovered that His Holiness Pope Francis, is, true to form, guided by the same
    Holy Spirit that guided his predecessor, and that he is planning to clasp the
    baton that His Holiness, Pope Benedict (Emeritus) was carrying so valiantly,
    and finish the race for him.

    Therefore, please just obey Our Lord, and do NOT be tempted
    to fall into apostasy or Schism. Just “hold
    fast to the Traditions” as St Paul urged us, and believe NOTHING that is said
    or written against him.

    You are all now discovering that Pope Pius XII’s TRUE character
    has been maligned and evil has been spread against him. The truth is fast emerging that he did in
    fact shelter thousands of Jews in the Vatican during the War, and that he spent
    his own personal inheritance doing what he could to assist them to escape the

    Consider why he was so maligned. The Poor Saintly Pope, had the misfortune to
    be the final Pope of the “old Order” of Christ’s Holy Church. As such, he represented the True Church in
    all it’s Regal Truth, and honourable Majesty, he epitomised the purity of soul
    that subservience to the Divine Will would make apparent. Those who sought wilfully to remodel the
    Church in their OWN malicious, sacriligious image, HAD to destroy HIS
    reputation (as they have subsequently tried to do with Our Lord’s through the
    false “historicity” of cheap works of blasphemous fiction like the Da Vinci Code)
    in order that the “New Order” of the
    Catholic Church might be established and
    all that was Old, Sacred, beautiful and
    truly innocent – to lie in a heap of
    ruins as scandal after scandal defiled her.
    Before she died Bella Dodd, a Stalin employee, admitted upon her
    conversion to the Catholic Faith that she had spent 40 years between 1930 and
    1970 infiltrating Evil, card carrying Communists into the Holy Church of God,
    seeking to destroy it from within. Stalin
    considered that the Catholic Church was his sole opponent against Communism, he
    told Ms Dodds, that he could not “turn Catholics into Communists, but “ he
    could “Turn communists into Catholics”
    These people, would seek to destroy the Church from within by their bad
    behaviour. This is what we have
    seen. It is what our Lady warned us
    about at Fatima, the diabolical threat from RUSSIA. It was the CHURCH that was in danger from
    Russia, not any particular land. It was
    Christ’s Mystical Body, His Bride, that Our Lady tried so valiantly to
    protect. We did not know, the evil that
    had taken over the Seminaries at that time,
    passed a new rule that the Supernatural would not be taught in the
    Seminaries, and so this awful agenda was able to gain a foothold.

    So, the ideal for this Judas’s was for all that was noble
    and good of the Old, to be re=presented in a manner that would make all who
    beheld her view her with hatred, distaste and horror.

    Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for many of us. Our Lord, has spent the last 400 years,
    sending Mystic after Holy Mystic, Miracle worker after Holy Miracle Worker,
    Apparition after Saintly Apparition, to grant us in precise detail the
    battle-plan of the enemy and destroyer of souls, and even told us how they were
    going to go about this diabolical usurping of His beautiful, cherished Bride.

    Why, have the Seminarians NOT been instructed in the
    Apparitions of the Church? Why, even
    today, does my particular Priest not know anything about Fatima, the Divine
    Mercy, Marie Julie Jahenny, the Prophecies of St Brigit of Sweden? Because if they and we HAD been made aware of
    these supernatural events, the take over
    would never have been accomplished. It
    would have been a case of forewarned is forearmed.

    They tell us that
    Blessed Pope John XIII was a liberal – that he was a modernist, They tell you that Pope Paul VI was a traitor
    who was on a obsessive quest to destroy
    the Traditional Mass and remove the Latin from the Sacred Liturgy. That is not true!

    Fr Gomer depauw, knew BOTH of these Popes well, he worked at the American Seminary in the
    Rome, during the 1960’s and he tells a totally different story. He tells of how a traumatised Pope Paul VI
    was literally made ILL due to the deliberate Apostasy of a group of American
    Bishops who had requested an English Vernacular Translation of the Missal, and
    Pope Paul had said “NO,NO,NO!” only to
    discover to his utter devestation, that they had disobeyed him (an unheard of
    thing at that time)and gone ahead and translated it anyway.

    The whole TRUTH of what really happened in the wake of
    Vatican II is contained in this 60 minute talk by Fr depauw. If you really want to know the truth, that
    please take time to listen to it. MP3 of Fr depauw’s 1967 talk

    Here is a text
    version of that same talk.

    I will believe NOTHING, that is said against the Pope, for,
    the wolves are in the sheep fold and they are intent to scatter and divide as
    Christ forewarned us. Just do what we
    are commanded to do by our Sacred Magesterium,
    remember Saint Justin Martyr said “No apostate, schismatic or Heretic
    will enter the Kingdom of Heaven”

    The Holy Father is the one that MUST be obeyed. Let’s trust Christ, obey, subserviently the
    one that He has placed over us at this time, and protect him, cherish Christ
    THROUGH him, and be unswervingly loyal to these reforms – out of Love for
    CHRISTQ! Do we not want to give Him ALL
    that is of the most beautiful?? The most
    beautiful Liturgies, the Most beautiful Holy Sacred Music, the Floral Tributes
    the awe-inspiring Gothic Churches, magnificent in their splendour. As St John Vianney, the Patron Saint of
    Parish Priests said “Wear the shabbiest Cassock under the most glorious Sacred

    Pope Francis is seeking to restore the Church to her former
    glory – because the Visionaries of Our Holy Church have told us that is what
    WILL eventually happen. Let’s just stop being frightened by the wolves and just
    stay united behind Pope Francis and support HIM.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    It is utter triviality of this incident that amazes me that it should be thought worthy of discussion or an indication of anything.

  • Illinidiva

    That was what I was concerned about when I heard about this at first. I know that there are lots of people who would like Francis to slow down and perhaps his aides suggested he actually rest. They then went to the concert so that there wasn’t any concerns about his health. We have no idea, so it is silly to speculate.

  • Jonathan West

    You Catholics do love your conspiracy theories!

  • Agnus

    Bella Dodds, was converted to The Catholic Faith by Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. She said that the number of Communists she had infiltrated into the Priest hood between 1930 – 1970 was 1100.

    She wrote a book about her crimes. It is available from Amazon and is called “The School of Darkness” unfortunately somebody realises it’s worth and is selling it for $100. It can be read online though here

    Pope St Pius X had this document published. Written by the enemies of the Church it somehow was placed in his hands and he made sure it was published. I don’t think I personally want to read it – it is absolutely FOUL!!!!!

  • Andrew Young

    Hear, hear. Utter trivia.

  • Rosan

    The news article did say that 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”. Isn’t that already an explanation why the Pope wasn’t at the concert? Why can’t we accept it at that? What’s all the fuss about?

    We’re all humans, and we all do have limitations; physically we just can’t be at all those places 24 hours a day. We all need to get some rest. Just because he is the Pope, he should be anywhere, anytime! Just because he missed the concert, is that enough to fault him for that?

    Come on, give Pope Francis a break! He’s been working so hard since he was chosen Pope, having schedules one after another, so hectic for one his age, being past his 70s already! He’s been saying daily masses with the Vatican staff and employees; followed by the personal audiences with the pope of several dignitaries and guests, his weekly audiences, the angelus, etc. He can’t be doing everything all at the same time! Besides, like anyone, the Pope does need to have time to also rest.