A Simpler Papacy

Once again, we call these things inevitabilities when they’re really choices:

Not for Francis the red leather shoes favored by Benedict. Indeed, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire reported that a priest at the cathedral in Buenos Aires banded together with some friends to buy a pair of new shoes for Bergoglio before the archbishop left for the papal election conclave in Rome because his footwear looked so embarrassingly tattered.

On Friday, after an audience with senior prelates, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles tweeted, “At our meeting today with Pope Francis, I noted that [he] is still wearing his older black shoes. I pray that he keeps them as a sign for us all.”

But even as the head of what is essentially Europe’s last absolute monarchy, Francis is already discovering that his power, and his insistence on humble practice, has limits.

On his visit Thursday morning to the St. Mary Major basilica in downtown Rome to pray, he rode in a modest Vatican car with only a small security detail, eschewing the papal Mercedes (license plate SCV 1, abbreviating the Italian and Latin names for Vatican City) and a police escort. When the guards in charge of his safety moved to close off the basilica to the public, the pope asked that it be kept open.

Nothing doing.

“The gendarmes of the Vatican said no,” said an employee at the church who declined to give his name. “The pope wanted it open, but the wish of the pope was not obeyed.”

Such precautions are understandable; one of Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II, was wounded by an assailant’s bullet in 1981. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, suggested that there could be some flexibility in Francis’ security arrangements, since the guards “are at the service of the pope and will have to adapt themselves to the pastoral style that the pope will use.”

Security is likely to be tight on the pontiff’s foreign trips, where the man who used to ride the bus around Buenos Aires is likely to be chagrined to see traffic blocked for his sake. In addition to head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope will have to adjust to being a head of state who will be treated as such.

Actually no, he won’t. He’s the pope. People will have to adjust to treating him how he wants to be treated. That’s like the only perk of the position. This seems to me to be one of those jobs where there actually are no checks on your power. If I become pope tomorrow and make Battlestar Galactica required viewing for all U.S. Catholics, and replace the entire vestment thing with UW hockey hoodies, then welcome to the new order. So say we all, and hit ’em again.

Benedict, as someone in this story points out, wanted fancy clothes and ceremony because he saw it as a way of communicating the power of the church. That’s understandable, inasmuch as it sent the message he wanted to send. If Francis, then, wants to send the message that priests are servants instead of princes, and he wants to do that via paying his own hotel bill and driving himself around and meeting with people in the open, the gendarmes best step back lest they find themselves out of a job. Pope wants to hit the drive through McDonalds instead of having something catered in, you go get him a god-blessed Big Mac already.

There’s this sense in the story and I’ve heard it from others that this is some kind of bad sign, that the cardinals will all be pissed off this and Catholics won’t respect the papacy as much without the giant hat that comes with it. And once upon a time when people were used to seeing only kings and princes in opulent palaces, that might have been the case. An insurgent, immigrant, powerless church might have needed those ways to communicate its power.

But now? Humility is the surprise, the aberration, the outlier. That could bring the church more attention than any new pair of shoes could.


4 thoughts on “A Simpler Papacy

  1. I was at a huge public event to see the Dalai Lama and that was interesting. It seemed (and it might have been purposely positioned this way) that he reluctantly accepted the security detail, which was visible and yet not overwhelming.
    And speaking of the Dalai Lama, there is a real sense of presence there, that is far and away less about the Authority as it is about the raw charism that he projects and which is similarly projected into him from the crowds. Celebrity status is what these people get when the PR is in good shape ( see Diana Princess of Wales) once we love them they can almost do no wrong.
    It would be incredibly wise if the Holy Spirit were to get the upper hand over the Cardinals and get this guy into that kind of place. IMHO the Church hierarchy lacks credibility on a spiritual level. They have a chance to get some cred now, but they are so lead footing about this stuff I doubt they will pull it off.

  2. Pope Athenae I!!!!
    “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Fuck’em Bucky. Amen”

  3. I President Obama can get out of the limo and walk down Penn Avenue then the Pope get eschew the Popemobile.
    the Vatican security can do a better job of screening the crowd. bravo, Francisco! no more custom made red Prada slippers at 600 euros a pair!

  4. I think its ridiculous to even describe what the new Pope is doing as meaningful–if the church were willing to “sell all it has and follow Christ” it could do it, and should do it, whether the current Pope has new shoes or not. What is being described right now is simply a rebranding effort, describing packaging not content. The question isn’t what Francis does with the shoes his friends bought him–the question is what does he do with the expensive items sprinkled throughout the Vatican that could be sold to pay off the Church’s debts to the children they raped and the women in the Irish Laundries whose lives they stole.
    I’d like to agree with Escariot about the Dalai Lama. I heard him speak about 25 years ago in a New York audience. He was speaking about Buddhist theory, ideas about sentience, about revenge (on the Chinese), about compassion. I could not be more atheist or have been raised farther from any kind of religious or other hero worship but I was overwhelmed with the sense of his charisma and his spiritual power. I know absolutely that if he had said to me, as he walked out, “rise and follow me” I would have done it.

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