Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Pope Francis is full of surprises

Pope Francis has been quite a surprise in many ways. The resignation (or renunciation of the Petrine ministry) or whatever you prefer to call it of Pope Benedict XVI was a shock. In many ways, it felt deeply disappointing but a wise friend once pointed out, just because you feel it doesn't make it fact! Pope Benedict saw that he had reached a point where he could no longer continue, so he left in good time. The Cardinal Electors chose and once again surprised everyone; the Holy Spirit seems to have a habit of getting them to do that! I had heard of then-Cardinal Bergoglio before, oddly enough. An ecclesiastically savvy acquaintance had claimed last time around that the smart money was on him being elected. Well, this time, that's what happened. Any change can be disorienting and even a little bit frightening, but some of the wilder speculations about Pope Francis seem to be unfounded.

The idea that he was going to turn Catholic teaching on its head, which never made much sense, has no foundation at all. He hasn't fired Monsignor Guido Marini as Papal MC nor has he repealed Summorum Pontificum. He hasn't given us dense and complex teaching in the manner of Bd John-Paul II, nor yet have we had the subtle Patristic exegesis of Pope Benedict; instead, by way of his daily homilies mostly, he gives us meat, 2 veg and spuds theology. Simple, practical and heartfelt seems to be his way of preaching and acting. As you'll have gathered, I'm certainly warming to him.

However, there are still a few things that he might do better. Zim Catholic News had a rather provocative post which listed seven things that Pope Francis changed and either implied or explicitly stated that these changes were for the better. I can see their point but I beg to differ.

Their list runs as follows:

1. Changed the golden throne by a wooden chair... Something more appropriate for the disciple of a carpenter.
2. Did not want the gold-embroidered red stole, Heir of the Roman Empire, nor the red chasuble...
3. Uses same old black shoes, not the classic red.
4. Uses a metal cross, not of rubies and diamonds.
5. His papal ring is silver, not gold.
6. Uses the same black pants under the cassock, to remember that he is a another priest.
Have you discovered the 7th?
7. Removed the red carpet... He is not interested in fame and applause...

1. We are all of disciples of the Nazarene Carpenter, who is also the One who made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and who was Transfigured on Mount Tabor. Pope Francis is not just one disciple among others, he is the Vicar of Christ and as long as he fills that office he needs to look like that's what he doing. Gilded wooden Cathedra, plain wooden seat - which better bespeaks his office?

2. The red State stole represents his role as a Head of State, as a figure who enjoys (albeit precariously) political independence. That has within the last 70 years been of huge importance, as for example when the city of Rome was occupied by the Nazi regime. Are the stole and red mozzetta (NOT chasuble) of central importance, in themselves? No, but what they symbolise is a vital facet of the free exercise of the Petrine ministry by the successor of Peter. The Roman See is certainly the inheritor of much that was pagan Rome but what was incompatible with Christian life has long since been dropped; Mass vestments show this symbolically - the chasuble was the ordinary clothing in the late Roman Empire but the formal dress of the Roman Senator or citizen, the toga, is nowhere to be seen.

3. Using black shoes might be a sign of humility but wearing red ones is a visual symbol of willingness for martyrdom - faithful witness even to the point of death. They are red for the same reason that Cardinals wear red and Martyrs feast days have red vestments - their own blood willingly shed rather than the truth denied.

4. The Pope has chosen to wear a plain metal pectoral cross rather than one made of precious metals or decorated with precious stones. I don't know what rule, if any, there is about these things but wearing a plain cross seems to me to confuse things fitting for his office with simplicity he prefers for his person. Again, it's not a huge issue in itself but it does seem to me to be a misplaced form of humility.

5. An episcopal ring of silver is just as valuable as a gold one, I would think, and is more trouble to look after! Silver tarnishes and needs to be polished. Gold doesn't.

6. Black trousers under his simar? Sure, why not. I remember a priest who, while staying in my mother's house, lost a button off his cassock. She offered to sew it back on, so he shrugged it off and handed it to her. He was wearing khaki chinos! The point being we didn't know that, as they were not visible under his cassock. However, I won't lose too much sleep on this one...

7. Removed the red carpet? That an honour due to the office not the person. He can do away with anything he likes but it's not about him as Jorge Bergoglio, it's about him as Pope Francis, as the personal representative of Jesus Christ. The office is not the man. The fame and applause will come whether he likes it or not; his personal humility is very edifying but he will be with us for some years then another will occupy that seat. In that context continuity is no bad thing.