Black walking shoes instead of the red Pradas. Plain white robes rather than the royal red velvet cape. Communal living as opposed to the private and secluded papal residence. Greeters hugging him rather than kissing his ring.
These are certainly small acts of humility that alone are not a big deal. It is quite possible that these acts are more about style than substance. Critics would argue that such overt acts of humility are actually arrogant because of the attention they bring.
But I think that these analyses miss the potential notion that Pope Francis could very well be a transformational figure in the Roman Catholic Church as well as for all of Christianity — or at least of hope of that as demonstrated by his first weeks as the new Pope.
The fact that Francis is a Jesuit priest is not a small thing. Jesuits are known for their missionary work and emphasis on helping the poor. While they are also known for the founding of hundreds of universities around the world, they too are a highly spiritual order. We know this from their work here locally at the Manresa Retreat House. They are a highly social order in the sense that they live in groups and are big on outreach — a philosophy that possibly begot Cardinal Berglio’s pre-conclave admonishment to his fellow Cardinals that a “self-referential” Church, an inward-looking Church, was destined for failure. The Church, he told his colleagues, lives outside of Rome. If Benedict was first a theologian and a scholar, Francis is first a pastor and a teacher.
Several of his acts have been extremely touching and moving but they also suggest a certain openness and lack of orthodoxy. He has referred to himself as the Bishop of Rome and to Benedict as the retired Bishop of Rome, a sort of idea that he is one among equals. His language of choice has mostly been Italian — a practical nod to the fact that on any given day, most of his audiences are Italian — a practical application of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But this has also meant a move away from Latin, which has seemed to roil the arch-traditionalist. But, why bother, Francis might be thinking, when nobody but the guys in red understand Latin?
His services have been much shorter. On Easter, he skipped the traditional Easter greeting in more than 60 languages. Not only might he be saying that the universality of the Church speaks for itself, but also that maybe you don’t need to stand in St. Peter’s square for an extra 45 minutes while I repeat the same thing 60 times. “Have a good lunch” he said at the end of one Sunday appearance — a real-life acknowledgement of the great family tradition of Mass and brunch!
This is likely why he has chosen to stay in the Vatican apartment building — because of the fellowship, the camaraderie, the human need to commune with others. And who knows what he might hear or learn around the dinner table with a group of Vatican employees, religious and lay alike?
Amongst my favorite images of the new Pope (along with the one pictured here) was live tape of him greeting Mass-goers after services at the back of the Church, just like ordinary parish priests do around the world every Sunday. One attendee even kissed him on both cheeks, a colloquial greeting heretofore considered undignified for a Pope.
The common wisdom is that none of this will result in any major policy shifts regarding women as priests, married priests or gay marriage — to pick just three hot-button social issues. That is probably true. But on closer examination, Pope Francis’ words and gestures are opening up the possibility of more discussion. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, he seemed sympathetic to civil unions for gays, not as a matter of theology but as a matter of social justice. He has made powerful speeches about the important role of women in the Church. He understands that in some corners, mostly in western nations, the call to allow priests to marry is born largely from a concern about the shortages of religious vocations.
For the Holy Thursday washing of the feet, Pope Francis broke from tradition both in the location and in his choice of participants. To a traditionalist, it was one thing to perform this ceremony in a juvenile detention center, but another thing to wash the feet of a female and a Muslim. So while Pope Benedict’s ecumenical outreach to Jews, Muslims, the Orthodox and others was mostly done with intellectual speeches, Francis seems intent on actions. What more could be said to the Muslim world about being part of one humanity than this simple act?
After Berglio was elected Pope, stories surfaced about how he was the second-highest vote-getter last time around. It seems his supporters were prepared to dig in for a fight. But he very quickly asked them to drop this effort and support Cardinal Ratzinger. Reports from this year’s conclave are similar. He became uncomfortable as his candidacy gained momentum. This was evident in his first moments as Pope when he was introduced to the world. He gaze was stunned and worried. But, maybe with God’s grace, he quickly rose to the occasion. This is what great leaders do. They rise to the occasion; they inspire; they shepherd, lead and yes, manage.
I think that Pope Francis believes that theology, while inspired by God and the life of Jesus, at the end is about people. So when ultra-orthodox priests in Argentina refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers, he jumped all over them. Compassion, and leading people to Jesus, is more important, this suggested, than moral orthodoxy. While I don’t think this Pope will ever come out in favor of gay marriage, I also don’t think he’ll pick a fight with Catholics who do. This openness to others, grounded in his Jesuit training, while bound to clash with the hardliners will almost certainly cause some new thinking.
Being Pope is a hard job — one beyond the abilities of any 85 year old, Pope Benedict’s age at retirement. Pope Francis is 76 but has a nice pop in his step and seems healthy. I think it remains to be seen whether or not he will truly be a transformational figure and whether or not he has enough time.
Michael Sarafa is president of the Bank of Michigan and a co-publisher of the Chaldean News.