14 March 2013

Habemus Papam! Five Thoughts

By now you've certainly heard that we have a Pope, Francis.  Many of you have been asking my thoughts about the new Bishop of Rome.  Yesterday being a busy day I didn't really have anything to offer, but now I might.

First, it really doesn't matter what I think one way or the other.  Whether I approve of his election or not does not change the fact that he is the Supreme Pontiff and that we owe to him a filial devotion and obedience and we should remember him in our prayers each day.  We should all remember this.

Second, I don't really know anything Pope Francis' background except what I've been able to read since yesterday afternoon.  John Allen's piece on him seems to be the best I've read so far.

The media - as might be expected - has been making a big deal about his extraordinary care for the poor by trying to juxtapose it against his defence of the teachings of Jesus Christ, as if social justice could should be separated from right belief.  In reality, Pope Francis is simply a man who strives to follow faithfully after Jesus Christ by both holding to the truth and serving the least brethren of the Lord.  There is in this a great lesson for us all.

Third, many are, I think, over exaggerating the displays of his personal humility by stressing such things as his "shunning" - not my word - of some of the papal regalia (at least for the time being).  In time he may began to use more of the symbols of his office, or he may not; we do not know.  All of this can be a sign of his own humility but this does not mean - as many seem to be suggesting - the wearing of the full pontificals indicates a lack of humility.  Anyone who has met His Holiness Benedict XVI - who made frequent use of the full papal vesture - knows him to be a man of genuine humility.  I do hope Pope Francis will follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI, but he must be his own man.

In this regard, I often think of the words of Pope Saint Pius X who hated the regalia of his used but made use of it nevertheless.  To one friend he wrote: "Look how they have dressed me up."  To another, he wrote, "It is certainly a penance to be forced to accept all these practices.  They lead me about surrounded by soldiers like Jesus when he was seized in Gethsemane."  To dislike the trappings so much and still to wear them, that shows no less humility than not wearing the trappings; to my mind, it demonstrates a greater humility.  There are times when each of us has to do things we would rather not do simply because they fitting.

To be sure, I do not write the above as a judgment of Pope Francis, nor do I condmen him; please don't take it as such.  He must do what he feels is best.  On this matter there can be a cordial disagreement that need not lessen unity.

Fourth, what immediately struck me as he walked out on the loggia to greet the world was the look on his face.  He seemed to desire to be anywhere else in the world.  He look stunned and terrified, really.

He did not wave.  He did not smile.  He simply stood there.

When he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Beunos Aires, he took as his episcopal motto miserando atque eligendo ("lowly and yet chosen").  As he stood motionless on the balcony looking out upon the faithful the sincerity of these words was most evident.  He knows himself to be unworthy of so lofty an office and for this reason I think he will be a fine Universal Pastor.

But when the time came for him to smile and to speak to the people, both his smile and his words were genuine and from the heart.

He is, it seems, a quiet man who would rather fade away into the background; his new office will not really allow him to do that.  I am glad he said accepto and hope the Lord will give him many consolations in the days and years to come.

Fifth, his name.  For years now people have asked me what name I would choose when I am elected Pope.  Confident that this will never happen, I have always said I would choose to be called Pope Francis (meaning the First).  Now I suppose I will not be able to do that.

Longtime readers of this blog will now of my deep love for and devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi and the Pope's choosing of this name is fitting occassion for me to resume what was once a daily feature on this blog: Ponderables from the Poverello, daily quotes from Saint Francis.

I hope that Pope Francis will lead people to learn more about the Poverello and to discover the animal-loving gentle hippy image is far from the reality (Emily Stimpson has a good post on this).

From yesterday forward, we will no longer be able to speak of "our Holy Father Francis" with reference simply to the thirteenth Saint who renounced his father's wealth to embrace Lady Poverty and the Cross; now, we will have to be specific: Do we mean the man from Assisi or the man who is the Successor of Saint Peter?  Things could be tricky for a while in Franciscan circles.

To His Holiness Pope Francis, I pledge my willing obedience and filial devotion, and I promise a remembrance in my prayers.


  1. Anonymous10:49 PM

    Do we call him Pope Francis or Pope Francis I?

    1. Pope Francis. He can't be Francis I because there isn't a Francis II.

  2. Father, I understand that tradition plays an important role in the life of the Church. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether we lose track of an even older tradition...the life of the Church in Christ's day and in the first century or so after his resurrection.

    Jesus did not have, nor did he seek, expensive robes. I doubt that was the case for St. Peter, either, especially considering the humility that's reflected in the legend of him requesting that he be crucified upside down, since he wasn't worthy of a death that resembled Christ's. I guess what I'm trying to ask is...Are centuries of popes wearing expensive, elaborate vestments more important than the example set by Christ and his first apostles?

    1. Never did I say, Steve, that the wearing of papal vesture - whether expensive or not (you forget that one set can last for decades because of the quality of the materials, which could be a good argument in favor of poverty but not needing to replace it every few months or so) is more important than the example of Christ, and you should not so insinuate.

      If the logic of your argument - that the Pope should not wear elaborate vestments becase, presumably (we really do not know) Jesus did not - we should be able to exchange "elaborate vestments" with any other thing that Jesus did not use: cars, computers, planes, telephones, pencils, papers, suits and ties, etc. Clearly, the logic of this argument does not work.

      Each piece of papal vesture has a meaning and a symbolism behind it; I suggest you investigate a little to learn what the vestments signify. Then - perhaps - you will come to understand the beauty behind them.

      Finally, as with all such claims to absolute poverty for Churchmen - curiously, no such similar demands are ever called for on the part of the laity (for example, that laymen not wear suits because Jesus never wore a suit) - I remind you of the words Jesus spoke when the woman poured the precious ointment on his feet and Judas said the money would be better given to the poor.

      In the final analysis, the vesture of the Pope is not simply to honor the Successor of Peter, to honor Jesus Christ. The fact that many people today fail to realize this is not, in my estimation, sufficient reason to jettison ecclesiasitcal vesture.

    2. Amy Welborn provides an excellent response to your question here: http://amywelborn.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/a-word/

  3. Father, thank you for your response. However, I do think there's a bit of a false analogy in your reference to all the modern day objects we use which Jesus never used: cars, planes, telephones, suit jackets and neckties, etc. Clearly, none of those objects existed in Jesus's day; hence, he could not have used them even if he had been inclined to. By contrast, elaborate robes (which were, presumably, made out of fine materials and, hence, very expensive) DID exist in Christ's time -- secular kings would have worn them -- and they were available to those who wished for the money to be spent on them. Yet there is much to suggest that Christ did not seek out such attire: most especially the fact that he was a traveling man, someone who walked everywhere he went and did much of his teaching outdoors. Jesus was fully divine, yet also fully human--he would have perspired. For that reason (and also because Jesus teaches that we should not worry so much about how we will be attired, since the birds are beautiful in their simplicity), most of us probably picture Jesus in "everyday" clothes on most occasions, the same sorts of clothing that his fisherman apostles likely would have worn -- not fine ceremonial robes that a king of the time would have put on while standing before his subjects or sitting on the ceremonial throne.

    I don't mean, however, that Jesus walked around in rags. Obviously, we all know that the Roman soldiers cast lots for Christ's garments (John 19:23, "They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down."), which would suggest there was at least moderate value in the cloth they each sought. But perhaps it was not a fancy, elaborate, king-like garment? You can have a nice (durable?) piece of cloth which is, nevertheless, not royal in its elaborate design.

    For the record, I'm not suggesting that there's anything wrong at all with deacons, priests, bishops wearing vestments that show their important and special roles at Mass and in other ecclesiasitcal settings. Yet simple vestments can look beautiful and proper as well, yes? Pope Francis looks entirely dignified and proper in the simple vestments he has chosen to wear thus far. One need not be as elaborately dressed as our former pope, His Holiness Benedict XI, in order to represent Christ and the Church. (I realize you did not say that one must be that elaborately dressed, Father. I'm simply trying to set forth that idea for discussion.) Thank you for your time here, Father. I hope the remainder of your Lent is blessed.

    1. The analogy does hold, Steve; though expensive clothing did exist in Jesus' day the papal vesture of the last 1,000 years did not. And to what Jesus himself wore, we simply do not really know what he wore; we do not know what attire Christ sought out, regardless of how we picture him. That is not so much a matter of reality as it is placing our own conceptions on the Lord.

      Simple vestments well designed can indeed be beautiful, but nothing in my initial comments said anything to the contrary, though I would suggest that the chasubles employed by Pope Francis are simple but don't quite arrive at beauty, but this isn't a criticism of Pope Francis.