Sunday 18 February 2018

Francis's simple, humble style reveals unspoken criticism of Benedict's pomp

With every day Pope Francis reigns, his style reveals more contrasts with his predecessor Benedict in ways that amount to an unspoken criticism of how the retired pontiff conducted his papacy.

He showed his humbler style at his inaugural Mass wearing simple white vestments, black lace-up shoes and a low modern mitre, or bishop's hat. The vestments of the cardinals attending the Mass were more decorated than his.

By contrast, Benedict donned a shimmering golden chasuble, his voluminous outer robe, as well as red slip-on shoes and an old-fashioned ornate golden mitre for his first public liturgy on April 24, 2005.

Seven days are a short time to judge a papacy on, but the approval for Francis seems to show this is closer to what many Catholics want in a pope. Italians frequently note with approval that he reminds them of the popular Pope John XXIII (1958-1963).

"This is a new breeze of fresh air that is blowing through the church and the name of that breeze is Francis," Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a fellow Argentine, said.

"This is a call to humility and service to others that will mark his papacy," he said after the inaugural Mass.

Referring to Benedict's election in 2005, in which Francis was the runner-up, Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli said, "Bergoglio represents the road not taken eight years ago.

"Benedict is a great theologian, but being pope is not about being a theologian," he said. "I think history will see him as a pope who showed a particular side of what Catholicism is today, not as a pope speaking for the whole Church."


Benedict's papacy spoke to the church's long intellectual tradition, but faith also comes from the heart.

Instead of the manner of a reserved professor, the new Pope often speaks off the cuff, something Benedict almost never did, and relishes telling stories from his experience as a pastor.

Francis, who has said only positive things about his predecessor, has impressed other cardinals by playing down the monarchical side of the papacy that Benedict embraced.

He took a Vatican bus along with them instead of a waiting limousine after his election and sat down at the next available seat at dinner rather than preside at the head of the table.

This should not be a surprise from Catholicism's first Jesuit Pope because members of the order take a vow of poverty, but the baroque traditions of the Vatican are so entrenched that even small changes are noticed and analysed.

Concerned that the church's core message was not getting through, the cardinals who elected Francis clearly said before the conclave that a new approach like this was needed.

"The message of Jesus is an attractive message, but it can get all buried in our churchiness," said Rev Thomas Reese, Jesuit author of 'Inside the Vatican'.

A pope's style is not a superficial issue. "The very way the Pope presents himself sends a powerful message to local bishops," said Faggioli.

Benedict was elected in 2005 partly to assure continuity after the death of Pope John Paul and partly because he seemed the best man to reform the Curia, which he failed to achieve.

Instead, he focused on restoring Catholic tradition against what he felt was a too liberal reading of reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

He dug deep into the Vatican's closets to bring back ornate old vestments for important ceremonies and promoted a return of the old Tridentine Latin Mass that had been sidelined by the council's modernising reforms.

This delighted the small minority of traditionalists in the church but left many other Catholics indifferent, if not hostile, to a shift which seemed detached from their concerns.

One of the worst crises of Benedict's papacy – the storm of criticism when he re-admitted an excommunicated bishop who was a notorious Holocaust denier – arose because he struck a compromise with four ultra-traditionalist leaders without properly examining in advance who he was dealing with.

During the pre-conclave meetings, the then Cardinal Bergoglio impressed other electors by saying: "You can't have the shepherd on the mountain and the sheep in the valley."


In his first few days in office, Francis has put out this message repeatedly by ignoring Vatican pomp as much as he can, stressing his role as bishop of Rome working with other bishops and reaching out to people when he can.

He did this last Sunday when he took on the role of a simple parish priest to say Mass for Vatican workers and then greeted supporters outside.

Average Catholics have clearly heard this message.

"He is a simple, humble person, he is not like the untouchable popes, he seems like someone normal people can reach out to," said Argentine electrician Cirigliano Valetin, who works in Italy and came to attend the inaugural Mass.

Shops near the Vatican, a rough guide to what pilgrims might like, now stock, 'I love Papa Francesco' T-shirts next to pictures and statues of Pope John Paul. Never big sellers, Benedict souvenirs are increasingly hard to find.

This is still the honeymoon period, so it is not clear what the reaction will be when Francis begins spelling out some of his traditional moral views, such as opposition to same-sex marriage, or his agreement with the church ban on women clergy.

The change in mood is still so new and so strong that those views, which are shared by the other cardinals of the church, have not yet figured much in public discussions about the Pope.

At this early date, it also seems almost indecent to some Catholics to say the warm reception for Francis is also due in part to the cool and distant style of his predecessor.

"Nobody wants to say this because he's still alive," said Faggioli.

Irish Independent

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