Pope Francis: Beyond the compelling gestures
When it comes to “followers,” the pope does have an enormous head start, as leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church. He also inspires unmatched curiosity and attention globally among many millions from other faiths and no faiths.
Francis comments most effectively through compelling gestures. The public sees him kissing the bare foot of an imprisoned Muslim woman, or the illness-ravaged face of a man he is blessing. When a child jumps to his side or grabs his papal skull cap, the pope is attentive, undistracted. Less instantaneous, but still revealing, gestures find him riding public buses, driving his own old car, living in humble quarters or sneaking off in the night to minister to the homeless.
Minority factions, Catholic and “other,” sputter criticisms. Months ago they were surprised at the election of this Argentinean Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church. Now they charge that he restricts himself to what they dismiss as mere gestures, mere symbols, mere ceremonies.
Rigid Catholic conservatives ask impatiently why he does not nail down church dogma and permit only safe, well-worn practices. They charge he is elusive when it comes to supporting those dogmas and enforcing the canon laws. Both, they insist, should be publicly defined, isolated and defended. Those much-noted gestures, they argue, are too ambiguous and nuanced.
Grumblers resent Francis’s evident muffling of hard-line utterances and his blurring of their cherished polarizing activities — against, for example, abortion and same-sex marriage. Many are befuddled: Critics might dispute papal words, but who can refute his gestures?
These all come with contexts. Teachers of public speaking long ago published charts depicting and prescribing specific gestures designed to achieve particular effects. Actors learn ways to gesture, and referees at sporting events work with elaborate vocabularies of gesture. Well, so do popes.
Sixty-plus years ago Angelo Roncalli, on becoming Pope John XXIII, signaled a fresh approach to the papacy in much the same way. He would not, for example, use a ceremonial chair, carried by four bearers, at St. Peter’s in Rome.
His successor, Paul VI, continued to make points through symbolic moves. He embraced Patriarch Athenagoras, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, in a 1964 meeting at the River Jordan — as if alluding to the Church East and the Church West beginning to affirm each other, where dogma and church law could not.
I reported on the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council, on November 21, 1964. During one of the daily sessions, before more than 2,000 bishops, I witnessed a gesture of ostentatious simplicity: Paul placed his precious three-tiered tiara on the altar at St. Peter’s. The pope was indicating the surrender of certain symbols of churchly power. He then announced that the tiara would be given to the United States. There it was to be sold, and the money given to the poor.
As with so many gestures, this one raised controversy. Some traditionalist Catholics are still upset. Critics on the left, meanwhile, pronounced it pretentious and phony.
Clearly popes, like other monarchs, expertly manipulate or respond to gestures. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, immediate predecessors to Pope Francis, often used symbols and gestures to achieve their ends. On a trivial level, Benedict XVI regularly wore fashionable red Prada slippers. Not Pope Francis, exemplar of a humble style.
On every level, though, the gestures of this pope serve as defining visual instruments of his papacy. Some commentators and critics have studied them to question his sincerity, which the wrong gestures and symbols could obscure. Near the end of his first year, however, the consensus now confirms that the pope we see is indeed authentic.
He shuns pomp and speaks informally to the crowds assembled below his window. He casts off the trappings that his predecessors used to keep a distance from the people. Instead of going formal with a formidable encyclical, Francis issued an evangelical exhortation. He has now begun to shuffle personnel at the Vatican, moving rigid Catholic conservatives out of influential roles, to indicate where his priorities lie.
Not everyone may support all this, however, since the pope’s gestures are related to his aim to teach the Catholic Church — and anyone else he might reach. His subjects are justice and mercy, exemplified by the Jesus of the Gospels and by Francis, the simple monk who is the pope’s namesake.
We observe gestures not as finished products, but in process. From where do they come? In John XXIII’s case, as his autobiography, Journal of a Soulsuggests, they came from his soul. In Francis’s case, the word he often uses is “heart.”
Still, even at their best, heartfelt gestures are not finished unless they impel others to action. Those of Francis may be intuitive — dare we say habitual — as calls to serve the poor, to heal, to notice the overlooked. So powerful are his gestures that, for the moment or the decade, one is tempted to ignore the absence of the usual expressions of power we associate with the papacy.
Two stand out. One is dogma, clearly defined doctrine, which can be appropriate, but also has often been an instrument of unmatched power. Dominators have used them to decide who is “in” and who is “out.” Staunch dogmatic critics now insist that Francis should use formulaic words to define Catholic orthodoxy. Meanwhile, suspicious observers hover in a “just you wait!” mode — since they cannot conceive of a pope who does not begin and end his action with blunt uses of dogma. Sooner or later, they say, he’ll move from using gestures to decisive words.
If not dogma, the police of papal ways will look for Francis to resort to church law, which defines right and wrong clearly and allows higher authorities, like popes or their agents, to punish all who deviate. Sooner or later, we are told, Francis will wield power in demanding ways.
We are regularly reminded that he will have to formulate strictures for women who yearn to be ordained, and, having formulated them, must silence or banish transgressors. He has to crack the whip on priests who would allow or plead for churchly blessings of gay marriage. His non-judgmental words and his resort to friendly gestures, it is asserted, will only lead the church down the path of relativism to chaos and destruction.
What is ahead? I remember in Rome back in 1964, veteran Vatican-watching reporters told those who supported the progressive bishops that they were naïve. We heard that bishops, once they returned home, far from Rome, would have to deal with nagging issues and recalcitrant factions. On these issues, they said, the bishops would not remain firmly with the progressives. A standard question to those who dreamed of positive change, was, “Have you any idea how much harder it is to ‘run’ an ‘open’ church than a ‘closed’ one?”
Many historians and theologians regard Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the majority of the bishops since 1965 as having lost much of progressive “spirit of Vatican II.” Yet Francis now summons that spirit when calling on church officials to stress justice, show compassion, serve the poor and “evangelize,” to invite back straying Catholics and attract new believers.
This first non-European pope is thoroughly at home with the pressures and arguments that agitate throughout church, state and cultures in the Western world — in part because they have counterparts across the developing nations in the Americas, Africa and Asia. He knows from his world-wide contacts and experiences that today it is not the ancient dogmas that most arouse suspicion and controversy.
Centuries ago, inflammatory issues were usually “churchly” in character. Factions fought over the nature of God and wrestled over the doctrine of the Trinity, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Or they dealt with the central figure of their faith, Jesus Christ, as “divine and human.” And they divided over the sacraments, human sin and grace. All of them important to this pope, but they have no monopoly in his prescript.
Today, a different agenda preoccupies the church in most cultures. The pope exposed a hot wire when, in that recent much-studied formal “exhortation,” Evangelii Gaudium, he attacked the tyranny of “unfettered capitalism” and the “economy of exclusion and inequality.” He has on his side the official Catholic teaching of the past two centuries — though that may count for little among dogmatists on this “social” front. Francis also showed his discontent with the way sexual, biological and gender issues, including abortion and same-sex marriage, were being focused on obsessively.
Gender-related controversies do often relate to church practices, and will likely disturb the peace after these first friendly impressions fade. The possibility of making policy changes that would allow for married priests is slight, or of ordaining women –the pope made clear — is now zero.
Will Francis misstep? Or wear out his welcome? Few signs of that as yet appear.
But the old cautions remain: Francis has to take on drastic reform within the Vatican and its operations, where positive gestures and symbols will not always help him. What some see as his honeymoon of 2013 will certainly be clouded when opponents regain their footing and organize resistance.
Whatever happens, however, we can be assured that we already have on hand the candidate for “the best-known person in the world” in 2014.
PHOTO (TOP): Pope Francis smiles during an audience for Christmas greetings to the Curia in the Clementina hall at the Vatican December 21, 2013. REUTERS/Claudio Peri/Pool
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Pope Francis hugs a child as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican June 19, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Pope Francis leaves at the end of a meeting with Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinale Palace in Rome November 14, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Pope Francis greets children assisted by volunteers of Santa Marta institute during an audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican December 14, 2013. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito
PHOTO (INSERT 4): Pope Francis waves as he arrives to conduct his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican November 27, 2013. REUTERS/Max Ross