Pope Francis: Beyond the compelling gestures

December 24, 2013

The most talked about person in the world — no surprise there! — is Pope Francis. Polls and Internet traffic confirm: No celebrity even comes close to him in fame or favor.

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


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Their opponents can oppose him as desilusioned catholics leave the church in disgust with the hypocrisy, the opulence,arrogance of a church that is supposed to speak for the poor and the weak. They protect criminals in the name of God. Tney will end up in the worst hell, designed for these malcreants and demagogues.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

There is no ambiguity in the teachings of Christ. The legacy of His work and message is abundantly clear. Finally, the Catholic church has produced a papal leader who understands and is willing to act on Christ’s teaching and example. It is only natural that Pope Francis would attract the harshest criticism and resistance.

Posted by sufrinsucatash | Report as abusive

Sadly the author, and no doubt some commentators, are looking for Francis to change the Church. And ignoring Francis’ call for them to change themselves.

Posted by pashley1411 | Report as abusive

The only question is, how soon will they poison him?

There is a long and honored tradition — honored at least in some quarters — of discreetly removing an inconveniently-pious pope: Gregory V, Adrian III, Benedict XI, Sergius IV, Clement II — and of course there is the sorry sorry tale of poor Pietro da Morrone, St Celestine V….But, after all, the Church, in this case the Church bureaucracy, has to protect itself, its ridiculous privileges, its vast financial empire, and its deviant ways….

Okayyyyy, this is the 21st century, and there have been advances. First, forensic science makes the old-fashioned methods a little riskier. On the other hand, it’s much easier to discredit the guy by planting, say, a naked altar boy in his rooms, or a bomb-wielding Bulgarian — a different kind of poison — or forging evidence of his complicity in the Dirty War, that process has already begun. But be assured, the monsignore-apparatchik-mafia will not roll over — their deal is too sweet, waaaaaayyyyy too sweet.

Posted by acebros | Report as abusive

The only question is, how soon will they poison him?

There is a long and honored tradition — honored at least in some quarters — of discreetly removing an inconveniently-pious pope: Gregory V, Adrian III, Benedict XI, Sergius IV, Clement II — and of course there is the sorry sorry tale of poor Pietro da Morrone, St Celestine V….But, after all, the Church, in this case the Church bureaucracy, has to protect itself, its ridiculous privileges, its vast financial empire, and its deviant ways….

Okayyyyy, this is the 21st century, and there have been advances. First, forensic science makes the old-fashioned methods a little riskier. On the other hand, it’s much easier to discredit the guy by planting, say, a naked altar boy in his rooms, or a bomb-wielding Bulgarian — a different kind of poison — or forging evidence of his complicity in the Dirty War, that process has already begun. But be assured, the monsignore-apparatchik-mafia will not roll over — their deal is too sweet, waaaaaayyyyy too sweet.

Posted by acebros | Report as abusive

Unfortunately you may be right @acebros. He very well may be killed somehow in the next two years if he keeps up the high profile and actually gets the church minions to start preaching to his tune. Could you imagine American priests speaking out against their socially religious wall street and big business members? I would just love to see them singled out on a Sunday morning for like, the last merger they did. So cool. I would even go to church to see the likes of that!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

It would help on the credibility side if Pope Francis actually took the Franciscan vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. I don’t think Jesuits do. They vow to obey the Pope and their Superiors and to remain celibate. Celibacy and chastity are not synonymous in churchly eyes. Celibacy meant Priests could not have families and could not leave any children out of wedlock with property – church property – and could not recognize them as legitimate. If they had any children out of wedlock and had private resources they could sometimes see to it they didn’t starve but they had no social creds and carried the stigma of illegitimacy. Many people don’t remember the social structure of the old world at all. When the church ruled the roost in Europe and elsewhere lapses of chastity were almost laughed at (priests are only human) or despised by the more earnest. For priests, lapses of chastity were something they dealt with in private with their confessors. As a former Catholic, that’s what I was taught over 30 years ago.

BE careful about wanting orthodoxy – it has nasty implications like spikes all over it. I left it 30 year ago because their orthodoxy was already becoming very questionable and very shaky. Even the structure of the Mass is something that has undergone some funny alternations – even when I tried to attend recently to see if I could readapt to it. At one Sunday the Act of Contrition disappeared. That was very strange. They have also reversed the stand on extraordinary methods to prolong life for the terminally ill or comatose. Those are not the actions of an organization that claims infallibility. I really don’t expect that anyway but many Catholics seem to want that. Many still don’t want to think or they want reassurances about he vagaries of life that society can’t provide anymore. .

Francis doesn’t have to obey anyone as “monarch” of the church. And no Catholic ever votes for the Pope, Priests, Bishops or Cardinals. Some Protestant sects deal will clergy by agreement within the community. The Catholic practice doesn’t meld well with democratic institutions and isn’t even as accountable as the Protestant sects that adapted and flourished in the US. The monarch can be generous and compassionate in ways the stiffer and more Calvinist protestant sects don’t like to be, but that isn’t quite true in all cases. Even tolerance of organized crime may be more like the days of Tammany Hall when the immigrants saw that political machine as a way to rise under the dominance of the Anglo Saxon and Dutch old timers who dominated the social and economic life of New York City. The old guard needed the immigrant bodies as workers in the new industrial expansion of the country but hated them for their ethnic differences and the potential commercial and economic competition they represented. Is there a more truthful description of what was really going on then? The Statue of Liberty obscures the real life of the country. Are the faithful obligated to forget the social history? Those facts seem to be returning with a vengeance. Organized crime could actually be the compassionate route or economic conditions become too severe.

The Churches stand on Homosexuality is right out of the Old Testament. It is obvious the Church only wants people who will raise more children and more Catholics. So does every other religious tradition that wants more faithful through breeding and conditioning within the tradition. They all know it is harder to make converts. The Church I attended for a few months was very dominated by women who seemed more interested in the rituals than anything the Church stood for. There’s is something ridiculous about old ladies wearing mini skirts and carrying the Gospels in the air at all times and about very fat women wearing tight fitting pants that display everything but their vulvas. Most Catholics I saw there didn’t seem to do more than plug in every Sunday to get a dose of grace and then live their lives as well as they can. So do I and I’m gay – but chaste and celibate. But I really resent them for trying to tell me I couldn’t beat off as a teenager. Perhaps I would have understood the other boys better and not been gay? Catholic boys are raised to feel guilty about and to get married as soon as possible. So are the Amish and the orthodox Jews.

Those who did not raise families were either shunted to the side in civil life (as old maids or nice antique dealers etc) or were forced into convents and monasteries if they wanted to remain in the Church. The Church still harbors many people who obey their genetic code far more earnestly and unconsciously then they do any living or dead savior or monarch, spiritual or otherwise. That is their one true God even if it isn’t quite as unique and unexplainable as it once was. If the Church is afraid of relativism – it’s already lost the battle unless there is some Catholic or other physicist who can overturn Einstein. If there ever is one – they may have an even bigger problem with reality than they already have. The only “absolute” I seem to recall in physics is absolute zero – the coldest matter can become. I suppose that is still true. And that is the temperature that most of outer space actually comes closest too.

The St. Francics this Pope so admires is the most venerated of all the saints, apparently (according to Wikipedia but not Dante BTW) and had no further interest in the propagation of his line, his fortune or his status in society. Most Catholics would not dare do the true St. Francis route. But many Buddhists and Hindu religious people do follow his line of thinking because it has been their tradition for thousands of years. They were traditions that grew in areas far more developed and populated. This society of consumers doesn’t like the idea because it isn’t good for the economy – but might be good for the health of the planet – and really likes religious ideas that don’t hurt their consumption habits or real estate values. They love religion that is user friendly and tells them what to think about everything.

Not even “sanctity” is so unique and it certainly isn’t the monopoly of the RC church.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

@paintcan, I’m not surprised by your attitude toward the roman catholic church. I’ve never been a friend to them in the past either. In fact I’ve never been a follower of any mainstream religion. I choose my own path. But as I look around at humanity, I find that I support all of those religions to some extent. They help keep mankind from anarchy. From what I see in this new Pope I will support him. He is trying to make things better for all people. I’ll give him the chance. I hope that all Christians remember the roots of their religion and forgive and let God judge, not the mobs.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@TMC – I know my comments are getting too confessional and I hardly paid attention to this last Pope’s election. I feel a little off balance every time I think about them.

St Francis walked around until he died with Stigmata on his hands and feet and they apparently never healed. There is even a chapter in Wikipedia that talks about them. They are more common than one would expect and 80% of them were/are born by women. I mentioned him at a Quaker meeting I tried to attend years ago and one old women there thought he was crazy, that’s all? But I can’t imagine a psychotic being able to pierce his own hands and feet through the bones (the metatarsals and metacarpals?) even in a fit? But I have seen a women in a psychiatric ward with shallow cuts in a diamond pattern on her arms that were really like African skin markings – painful but not that painful. And that may not even be where the Romans were supposed to have nailed Christ. Some think it could have been through the wrists and above the ankles. Maybe the Romans were trying to make him die quickly and not have to hang around for days the usual way, as they did with Sparticus’s 5000 fellow captives – tied with rope only?

They were such sadists and were experts at making people die in horrible ways, but everyone lived with so much more bodily pain in those days. Maybe that’s the “reason”?

I’ve been accused by one guy I like to argue with of having no wisdom. But life is not something that ever seems to be reducible to easy wisdom like his. He puts himself and his own welfare as the center of his circle. so to speak. The real St Francis seems to have tried not to do that. Maybe the sitgmata were some way of feeling that he wasn’t completely off his rocker? Did “God” live inside or outside that circle or in both places at once? The idea of God can’t be reduced to simple reason. Was it a reward for breaking out of his box? Or was St. Francis trying to prove something to himself?

BTW – It just occurred to me this morning: If Francis took a vow of obedience to his superiors, does that mean he is obligated to obey the earlier Pope? Did Benedict abdicate when he retired? I thought what they had now was a Pope emeritus and the new one? That photo at the top looks a tad goofy or even a bit sinister. But I suppose if you stare at it too closely and the expression is still – it can mean many things, especially if all you have to go on are photos and never knew the man personally? This whole country isn’t working on loads of confidence in its elected officials either. I haven’t had much in years and actually think skepticism is a whole lot smarter and ever wiser. It is! The sheep still get sheered and they still get served up as kabobs. Even “the Good Shepard” had to eat.

The Catholic Church always seems to be an organization that defied reason. The Protestant sects tended to be friendlier to reason. But what the hell is “reason” or rationality when human beings are anything but rational or reasonable in every aspect of their beings? Reason is a very delicate flower and always seems to need special handling and should keep blinders on about certain matters. But reason hates blinders.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive