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.
“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.