Refreshing Francis throws down gauntlet

In a pontificate of less than three weeks Pope Francis has radically shifted the symbolism of gesture and how the core beliefs and concerns of Christianity are conveyed.

He has spectacularly shunned the pomp of his predecessors which far too often verged on Versailles-scale hubris. The Jesuit Argentine has dismissed the trappings that did so much to make the Vatican and its offices seem a remote, aloof monarchy rather than the seat of today’s transient successor to Peter.

To billions of people born into the Catholic tradition many of them have been so disappointed, some utterly betrayed, by the institutionalised, self-important hierarchy that they no longer define themselves as Catholic, Francis may re-ignite the idealism that makes the basic Christian message of love, faith, hope and charity as attractive, challenging and powerful as it ever was.

Only time will tell if Francis’s symbolism has real substance, if his calm charisma and commitment are enough to sweep away the pomp and deference that made so much of the interaction between the hierarchy and their “flock” seem one of assumed superiority sustained by the shabbiest, self-serving sycophancy. Only time will tell if his pontificate endures for long enough to see this great change in emphasis made real and active.

The moment he was elected Francis declined to continue the tradition of wearing vestments that had more to do with the excesses of haute couture than the message brought by a carpenter born more than 2,000 years ago. He has declined to live in a Vatican apartment used by his predecessors since 1903 that, he said, “could house 300”, preferring a guesthouse where he sits to eat wherever he can find a place at a table.

He has, since he was elected on Mar 13, made many powerful statements while saying nothing. However, his visit to Rome’s Casal del Marmo prison, where he washed the feet of two women prisoners — one a Serbian Muslim — was as articulate and powerful a challenge to corporate Catholicism as any made by a Church leader.

That he, the first pope to do so, washed the feet of women on the day before the final draft report of the HSE inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar was handed to her husband Praveen’s solicitor in Galway, will have a particular resonance in this country. The Casal del Marmo gesture does not of course signal a change in Catholic absolutes, but it does hint at a better understanding of the world we actually live in.

It will be interesting to see how Catholicism around the world responds to Francis’s example. It will be more than interesting to see, at this time of great crisis and confidence for capitalism, if the cause of the marginalised and the poor becomes the central mission of Catholicism. It will be interesting to see if the Church is prepared to compromise its links with power, clerical or civil, to do this great work.

But it will be most interesting of all if Francis and his supporters can confound the sceptics — and some conservative Catholics — who suggest that he is a man selected by a dying institution, in European terms at least, to chameleon-like meet the needs of the day and eventually restore its position and authority. What a victory that would be for the ideals rather than the institutions of Catholicism.


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