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Pope Francis is a humble man, just like Benedict XVI

Let’s stop falsely comparing the Pope with his predecessor

By on Thursday, 8 August 2013

Pope Francis greets Benedict XVI at the Vatican in May (CNS)

Pope Francis greets Benedict XVI at the Vatican in May (CNS)

Recently I read with relief that Pope Francis had ordered the removal of a statue which had been erected in his honour in the grounds of his former cathedral in Buenos Aires. My relief was due, not only to the predictably execrable taste of the artefact in question, but above all to the kind of signals the papal intervention was sending out. Indeed, Francis himself is reputed to have told the cathedral authorities that he didn’t want to encourage a cult of personality. This is entirely to his personal credit; it is also necessary for the well-being and mission of the Church as a whole.

Cults of personality are not always the direct result of the will of those who become their object. Blessed John Paul II was a pope of tremendous charismatic power, elected at a time when the stormy cultural and ecclesial conditions made many yearn for a more authoritative figure than the gentle but (according to some) vacillating Paul VI. The Polish pope travelled the world and reaffirmed the power of the Catholic vision, enthralling crowds by the very force of his personality. This was the method he used to give back confidence to a Church in which many were disorientated by an unprecedented whirlwind of change, while others were vociferously demanding that the pace of change be hastened. His pontificate may be seen as a case of what Blessed John Henry Newman called “changing in order to stay the same”. But many in the Church – including many of those who welcomed the defence of traditional doctrine – were uneasy that enthusiasm for the pope’s personality was, in the course of an unusually long reign, obscuring a proper understanding of the role of the office and hindering the appreciation of his message.

This may have been one reason why the cardinals chose Joseph Ratzinger, the shy and rather un-charismatic “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”, to replace his predecessor. Ratzinger’s understated style would have seemed for many to augur a restful respite, unlikely to generate a cult of personality. I believe that this was one reason why Benedict XVI reinstated some of the outward signs of office which John Paul II had dropped. He wanted to remind us that the office of the papacy, as teacher of the Church and centre of her unity, is more important than the personality of its holder.

With the advent of Francis, the trappings are once more pruned back, and indeed more drastically than before. The intention, however, appears to be the same. Francis may believe that the perceived “pomp” surrounding Benedict XVI undermined his desire to re-direct the focus away from the person. My hunch is that he is also simply being himself. But there are also signs that he intends to reform the exercise of the papal office. Far from being immovably fixed, as many Catholics seem to think, the manner in which the primacy is exercised has evolved throughout history. Throughout the second millennium, the popes were seen and acted as temporal rulers, as well as spiritual leaders and teachers. It may be to emphasise this latter, essential role that the new Pope is happy to follow his instincts and dispense with inessential trappings.

To give but one example, Francis prefers to use the term Bishop of Rome, rather than Pope, in his official signatures, as well as his speeches. As Robert Bolt has Thomas More say in A Man for all Seasons, this changes nothing in his authority. But it is a reminder to Catholics and other Christians that the authority claimed by popes rests upon their occupancy of the See of the Fisherman. Peter received the primacy because he spoke for the whole Church by proclaiming his faith in the Son of God at Caesaria Philippi, and shed his blood for that faith in Rome. The Pope is the servant of the faith, and not its master.

What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that these signs of humility be used to belittle his predecessors and their legacy. I am tired of hearing it implied that the present Pope’s simplicity and humility are in contrast to the supposed arrogance and luxurious lifestyle of his predecessors. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to Benedict’s humility several times, and I think it is time to set the record straight. Let me quote a few examples.

Francis’s decision to live at the Casa Santa Marta has been attributed to his eschewing of luxury, with the implication that his predecessors embraced it. In fact, the papal apartments are certainly large and grandiose, but to call them luxurious is laughable. They look to me rather cavernous and uncomfortable, containing few or none of the creature comforts sought after by contemporary, materialistic culture. In any case, Francis tells us that he forsook the apartments not to escape luxury, but to avoid isolation (and we might speculate that he did so also in order to evade an excessive control on the part of his entourage over who has access to him).

The insidious contrasts become comic when we read at that the Pope now lives in what is basically a “cheap hotel”, where he can “have breakfast with ordinary people”. In fact, the Casa Santa Marta is a rather plush (though certainly not five star) lodging house for prelates. I doubt if the clerical hoi polloi like myself would be able to get a room there now, even if we could afford it.
As to the life they led within the Vatican, recent popes have been models of frugality by all accounts. I remember an English bishop who was invited to a working dinner with John Paul II. He starved himself at lunchtime to leave room for the sumptuous meal he was expecting. On his return to the seminary in which he was staying, he was obliged to raid the fridge, having been regaled with scarcely more than a bowl of soup and a boiled egg. Benedict’s regimen was equally un-princely, I am told. His preferred luxury was a can of Fanta, and his meals were taken briskly and in the company of only his immediate household.

When 200 homeless people were received to dinner at the Vatican, some of the purveyors of odious comparisons were publicly in awe of Francis’ humility and charity. They had perhaps been too busy to notice that he was merely repeating a gesture his two immediate predecessors had made before him. Or not quite. In 2010, Benedict XVI received 250 homeless people to lunch, and passed in person at every table before sitting down at one of them to take his meal with his guests. Francis sent a cardinal to represent him. Let us not make odious comparisons in our turn, but the narrative of the humble new broom who is sweeping away the “Renaissance court” of the immediate past needs to be exposed as the manipulation it is.

Why am I telling you all this? Is it because I want to blow the trumpet for the Pope Emeritus and talk down his successor? In fact, the reason is quite simply that I fear that Francis’s desire to avoid a cult of personality may be frustrated – paradoxically – by those who use his gestures for a purpose which is surely not the Pope’s. His desire to reform the Church cannot be furthered by presenting him as a charismatic re-founder of the papacy determined to sweep away existing doctrine and praxis in favour of an ideological interpretation of what it is to be a “Church of the poor”. He has subtly sent out signals to indicate that he values and intends to preserve his successor’s legacy, but perhaps they need to become a little less subtle.

And let me recall a gesture of humility whose historic significance has, I think, yet to sink in. In March 2009 Benedict XVI sent a public letter to the world’s bishops in response to the “Williamson affair”. The pope admitted that a mistake had been made, took responsibility for it, and apologised. I am unaware of any pope in history making such a gesture. John Paul II asked pardon for the sins of the Church in the past, Benedict XVI went a step further by admitting publicly that he himself had made an error and asking pardon.

In fact, he was taking the rap for the incompetence of his underlings (in a manner, let it be said, which his contemporaries in business and politics are only too keen to avoid). I believe that this totally unprecedented act was more than a gesture, and that it opened up new horizons in the exercise of the Roman primacy. It made it clear that infallibility, whatever it does mean, is not a divinely gifted exemption from making mistakes. The potential fruits, both ecumenical and in terms of the internal life of the Church, may yet be incalculable.

All popes make mistakes. All popes bring strengths and weaknesses to the task. To reform the Church, Pope Francis needs to bring decisiveness and determination to bear within the rickety machine of the Vatican. He needs a gentle strength, and a humble sureness. As we seek to avoid the pitfalls of the cult of personality, the Church needs discernment on his part in the choice of gestures, and caution on our part in the way we allow them to be interpreted. Let us try to assist him by our loyalty and our prayers.

Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He has studied and ministered in Rome, France and Greece. He is a researcher specialising in theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 9/8/13

  • licjjs

    Benedict has a deep understanding of the almost mystical power of true symbolism – unlike the priest who, when the flame of the Paschal candle, lit from the blessed fire, blew out, lit it again as the procession began with his lighter! This caused me such deep repugnance I was almost sick.

  • Zephyranth

    From what I gathered, Pope Francis’ decision to live in St. Martha house is for the purpose of not remaining isolated as previous popes did. He has an overwhelming work to do, and he has to keep normalcy intact to accomplish the onerous tasks expected of him to solve and to manage. He needs to keep his sanity intact – whatever it takes, even it means deviating from protocols. We also cannot forget what happened to JPI who ruled only for 33 days. Francis just like JPI also intended to introduce dramatic changes to reform the Curia and the Vatican Bank. So to be surrounded by people and dine in a common cafeteria could be a better and safer route for Pope Francis.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    “normalcy”! shades of Calvin Coolidge.

    ” We also cannot forget what happened to JPI who ruled only for 33 days.”

    Are you hinting at a murderous conspiracy ? Sounds a bit pulp fiction to me (Dan Brown?). I thought that natural causes were the verdict on his sudden death.

  • Scyptical Chymist

    You are saying he did not carefully consider and weigh his words trying to judge possible reactions? I had thought his adeptness in this area was a principle reason for his election by those politically aware cardinals, the heirs of Vatican II.

  • $20596475

    Having read a few of the threads on the NCR which you have contributed to I have to say I am impressed by the standard of the contributions there. There seem to be many more posters from the progressive side of the Church making valuable contributions, alongside the nastiness, of which there is also plenty as there is here.

  • Julian Lord

    Not many would miss your presence were you to permanently migrate to the Fishwrap to discuss industrialised population control, targetting essentially the poor, with those “catholics”.

  • $28180339

    While the theology is very much wanting on that website, they are pretty much on top of the Church child abuse crisies at least in the United States.

  • $20596475

    And you deny that you follow me around, jumping in on any comment you feel entitled to!

    I was addressing my remarks to Jeannine, and not to you, and was interested to see the higher level of contributions from the sort of Catholics you appear to despise. I was much heartened to read that they appear to despise the likes of you every bit as much. There is much good reading there.

    It confirms to me that my analysis of your situation in the Church is broadly correct and your use of such terminology as “Fishwrap” provides further evidence. Thanks for that.

  • Julian Lord

    It confirms to me that my analysis of your situation in the Church is broadly correct


    You have demonstrated very little true understanding of the Church, and you continue in your very mistaken manner to consider it in similar terms as some kind of political club, like Rotary for example.

  • $20596475

    As you are once again suggesting that you know my mind better than I do let me correct you. For the benefit of any other readers, because I already know from experience that nothing I say will make the slightest difference to your own fixed, self righteous, opinions.

    As I have taken an interest in your Church for many years, for my own special reasons, I know very well that it is a much more complicated organisation than a simple club like the Rotary. Indeed my conclusions are that it is significantly more complicated than you seem to believe.

    Neither the Rotary nor the Church are “political clubs”. They are very different to each other and, whilst each involves themselves in certain political activities, politics is not the primary objective of either.

    So whilst I see the Church from a different perspective to your own, I do understand the view I have well enough. My view is also much broader than your own very narrow one, which seems to preclude the right for any other to exist.

  • Julian Lord

    you are … suggesting that you know my mind better than I do

    If you had learned to read at a more appropriate early age, you would have noticed immediately that I have done no such thing.

    I refer, obviously, to the ignorance of the Church that is demonstrated in your statements, not your mind.

    Indeed my conclusions are that it is significantly more complicated than you seem to believe … // … your … very narrow [view] seems to preclude the right for any other to exist

    oooooh look who’s suggesting that he knows my mind better than I do myself !!!

    WHY on EARTH do you continuously accuse others of your own blinkered cognitive biases ?

    So whilst I see the Church from a different perspective to your own, I do understand the view I have well enough

    Meaningless verbiage.

    I could just as inconsequentially write down something like “I fully understand my own opinions about Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men” — such pseudo-statements are entirely devoid of information, and are pretentious by their very nature.

  • $20596475

    I see, so my statements come out of thin air? No Mr JP, they originate in my mind and it was that you were pretending to know better than I do.

    I qualified my remark with “seem to”, thus making it a valid comment! Your contributions do lead to that conclusion. Nothing blinkered about passing opinions based on observation.

    As you don’t see the Church from my perspective it is hardly surprising that I understand it better than you do, which was the point of my remark. It was obviously lost on you though, probably through your desire to lash out whenever critical comments are made.

    Those who stand too close to a wall can only see a few bricks. Those who stand back might not see all the detail of those bricks, but they can see the whole wall, and its place in the environment. Those who feel that they are themselves the bricks can see nothing at all.

  • $28180339

    Their reports are not exaggerating the priest abuse or the bishop’s role in this crisis. Their stories are very similar to those reported in NCR as in the Register & CNA, although the Reporter reports on it more often as new information is released. I sometimes wonder if they want to feed the frenzy in its comment section. (There are many posters who have been abused by the clerics & sisters. I believe them because they are either so anti-priest or anti-Church. Nothing could have brought them to this level of hatred unless they experienced a major calamity. IMO)

    Recently NCR has reported that the LCWR is not being very forthcoming in acknowledging that some American sisters were abusing children, sexually &/or physical or how many——–no one knows at this point.

    I give NCR kudos on this topic.

  • Julian Lord

    I sometimes wonder if they want to feed the frenzy in its comment section

    I’ll take that as a “yes”, then — and thank you for your courteous answer.

  • $28180339

    Julian, I recommend that you visit the NCR website to bear witness to the entire Truth in a charitable way. You & others on this website are quite knowledgeable in Catholic beliefs. Your kind witness would show these un-Catechized Catholics the Truth & hopefully open their eyes or at least plant a seed. The patient, back & forth banter you & others had a few days ago with an homosexual man from Seattle was awe-inspiring. (I bet a seed was planted.) Many of NCR posters are suffering like this man, & they need to read the complete Truth before healing begins.

    Thank you for your witness & for increasing my Catholic knowledge.

  • $20596475

    If you don’t get the point of my words so be it! I had no real expectation of anything other than rudeness as a reply from you.

    I hope that maybe some others might get the point.

    If my words are “verbiage” how would you describe your own?

  • Julian Lord

    I recommend that you visit the NCR website to bear witness to the entire
    Truth in a charitable way. You & others on this website are quite
    knowledgeable in Catholic beliefs. Your kind witness would show these
    un-Catechized Catholics the Truth & hopefully open their eyes or at
    least plant a seed

    And then they pretend that women are some sort of “second-class Catholics” …

    I cannot ignore this request, loathe as I may personally be to deliberately jump into that ghastly snakepit.

    FWIW there were three nuns on the bus up home this evening ; instead of ranting on about contraception, abortion, and wimmin priestesses, they sat quietly in their habits and quietly contemplated the scenery.

    God Bless you.

  • Julian Lord

    How about — your ludicrously childish attempt at metaphor demonstrates both ignorance of even basic rhetorics, as well as being both symbolically and semantically significative of an attempt to force your own desire for ideological rigidity (via your intrinsically irrelevant wall and brick imagery, the irrelevance being causative of the failure of the “metaphor” BTW) in a blatantly neurotic attempt to transfer the flaws of your own defective structuralism onto whichever pathologically selected target so as to vicariously divest yourself of its deep cognitive flaws ?

  • $20596475

    If you were trying to be funny, well done because just for once you got something right.

    If not then you must have swallowed a dictionary and vomited it up again, because that is so much your pseudo intellectual style.

    A piece of advice. Don’t try that statement down the pub!

  • Julian Lord

    I am not responsible for your clear lack of understanding that knowledge of various contents of various specialist vocabulary is a prerequisite of such discourse that you attempt to engage in.

  • Nilda Latorre

    People forget that pope Francis is a Jesuit.He is a free thinker
    Expect many more surprises from him

  • $20596475

    There is nothing whatsoever in my comment which requires the use of such language to discuss it. It was written in everyday language, which anyone can understand and comment on. What you say is therefore not just incomprehensible, it is also rude and completely unnecessary.

    This is not a specialist magazine in which people with a special interest converse with each other. You often use pseudo intellectual language to try to imply some kind of superiority. What you actually do is confirm your self righteousness.

  • $24570317

    Having taken (more than) a few sips of my weekend Kir Royale, I feel stimulated to make a brief response, and to join the bun-fight.
    There are some, with highly specialised training and knowledge residing elsewhere, who are indeed a little at sea in other areas requiring:
    “various specialist vocabulary…a prerequisite of such discourse” and all the other gumpf of which you speak. But we have our own strengths and are not to be dismissed by jargon.

    At university I was sneered at for not appreciating the metaphysical poetry (or some such gumpf) of Jane Austen’s novels – I stupidly thought them “good reads”.
    Similarly my dear wife was almost decapitated by Dr Oddie for thinking Don Giovanni “good entertainment” (she was quoting the composer).
    There is no room for nauseating middle class snobbery and stupidity.

  • Julian Lord

    This is not a specialist magazine in which people with a special interest converse with each other

    In reality, it is no more possible to discuss metaphysics or theology using “ordinary language” than it might be to discuss evolutionary genetics, astrophysics, nor General Relativity with the same limitations of vocabulary.

    Though one could, I suppose, discuss whatever trashy rubbish you watched on TV last night. Was it a programme about the “benefits” of abortion ?

  • $20596475

    As we were not discussing any of the above, but a perfectly simple statement your comment, whilst obviously true, is completely irrelevant.

    The rest of your “comment” is just another of your gratuitous insults.

    You are excelling yourself.

  • Julian Lord

    Why did you refuse to answer my question about your TV viewing experience last night ???

    I **demand** that you must answer !!!

    Was it a programme about the “benefits” of abortion ?

  • $20596475

    As it was wrapped up as part of your insult it was ignored as being irrelevant to the real discussion.

    Nevertheless if you are really interested, no it was not. I don’t believe I have ever watched, or even been aware of, such a programme.

    All I can recall I watched last evening was some football. Maybe a little of the athletics and the cricket too.

    Your turn!

  • Simon James Perry

    Oh My! What great big eyes you have granny. ‘All the better to see you with, dancing down the yellow brick road in scarlet shoes my dear’.

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