A humble pope in an august office
The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis’ five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday. The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that “the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed.”
Later, it was reported that Francis had privately dismissed the event with a brusque, “I’m not a Renaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working.” Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man’s style. He has declared an end to the Papal Gentlemen, an office which, reformed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78), became an institution whose often aristocratic members officiated at public ceremonies, with their main duty being to meet and greet distinguished visitors. Reports quote the pope’s belief that they were “archaic, useless, even damaging.”
That last may refer to a sex scandal allegedly involving Angelo Balducci, a “Gentleman” who is claimed to have been soliciting male lovers through connections in the Vatican. This, in turn, may be part of the reason why Francis — again, in private — lamented the presence of a “gay mafia” in high places.
He recently prevailed on the French ambassador to Rome, Alain LeRoy, to greatly simplify a dinner for the Italian members of the Legion d’Honneur. Each guest had a papal note by his plate warning that “food wasted is food stolen from the poor.” He has told his bishops not to act like princes; lives in the Vatican hotel, not in the magnificent papal suite; and has repeatedly spoken of living life “as a gift, not as a treasure to be kept to ourselves.”
There’s substance as well as style here — substance based on a calculation. In the early years of last century, Europe’s Catholics — living in a relatively wealthy part of the world, even if many were poor — accounted for 65 percent of the world’s 300 million. Today, Europe has 24 percent of the 1.1 billion worldwide Catholics — with Latin America, the Asia Pacific region and especially sub-Saharan Africa showing rapid growth. Poverty is an often tangible part of everyday Catholic life; a fact that Francis believes contradicts the luxury of cardinals’ and archbishops’ palaces and the concentrated magnificence of the Vatican.
He has been a harsher critic than his immediate predecessors of the sins of capitalism: Commenting on the collapse of the Bangladeshi sweatshop in May, where more than 1,000 workers died*, he said that “not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!” Receiving new ambassadors to the Holy See in May, he warned against “a return to the golden calf” and “the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”
It’s a world away from the scholarly, introverted style of Benedict XVI — for whom the scandals and pressures of the Vatican finally became too much to bear. It’s closer to the expressive, even crowd-pleasing style of Pope John Paul II, but it’s much more militantly humble.
There is some risk in Francis’ strategy. There’s an argument that a display of power and wealth are needed especially for poor men and women, who wish to belong to a powerful institution led by great men wearing gorgeous garments.
But the pope’s efforts are also shrewd. His warnings against the “dictatorship of an economy… lacking any truly humane goal” align with the feeling of many across the world.
In Italy, Francis has found a stroke of luck: a humbled Silvio Berlusconi. His predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had a hedonistic Italian prime minister to deal with. In Benedict’s papacy (2005-2012), Berlusconi was beset with sex and other scandals, about which the papacy largely stayed silent because Berlusconi was a lesser evil than a pro-secular left. But that silence came at the cost of distress on the part of many Catholics. Berlusconi isn’t gone, but earlier this week he was convicted of paying for sex with a minor, and abusing his office — and given a seven-year sentence. Lengthy appeals make it all but certain he won’t go to jail. But, already appealing other convictions, he won’t be back as prime minister either. The Vatican’s moral/immoral dance of the past years will no longer need to be danced by Francis, who seems to be further from Berlusconi’s personality than any man in Italy.
Yet, if kicking out the Papal Gentlemen and ducking the concert are large gestures, delivering on the substance of his humility agenda will be much harder for Francis. The papacy is not a government of any more than the few hundred souls within the Holy See. While Catholic social teaching is long on ideas, it has no better idea of how to cope with present crises than political parties of the left or right.
Francis has to inspire his priests with the zeal to re-convert their often semi-detached flocks into activists for radical social change. He must avoid the excesses of leftism, yet not collapse into mere populism. He must identify the Church with programs of poverty alleviation; develop practical answers to the unemployment of the young (maybe as pastoral assistants, aids to aged parishioners or menders of crumbling churches); be present at policy discussions on the economy; and give social teaching some realist underpinning. The Catholic Church has a great many men (it’s chosen to marginalize women, for the most part) of high intelligence — of whom Francis, a Jesuit, is one. Let them bend their minds to address poverty’s constant companion — unemployment.
The choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth — the symphony Francis missed — proclaims that “All men will be brothers!” Easier sung than done. Perhaps it was better for the pope to stay at his desk than be discouraged by the height of the hill he has decided to climb.
*This post has been updated with a more accurate death toll from the Bangladeshi factory collapse.
PHOTO: An empty papal throne is pictured as Archbishop Rino Fisichella (R) reads a message from Pope Francis before a RAI National Symphony Orchestra concert, directed by conductor Juraj Valcuha of Slovakia, in Paul VI hall at the Vatican June 22, 2013. REUTERS/Giampiero Sposito