Less than a week ago, a man few had ever heard of or knew anything about was elected our Pope. Now, everyone knows all that is to be known about him, they have plumbed his depths, everything he has done, is doing and will do. They have projected upon his white cassock their hopes and their indifference, their fears and their terrors.
I generally try, as much as is possible, to stay away from the affairs of governing bodies. They darken my soul, and I have never been improved by following politics. I adhere to the sentiment of William Blake, who observed that government is all but irrelevant, for a foolish government cannot harm a wise man, and a wise government cannot help a fool.
But most of us lie somewhere between folly and wisdom, and the Papacy is no mere government, no matter how often the press tries to paint it so. We look to the Pope, and listen to his words, to see what we can see, and ponder how it is to guide us, if it is to guide us at all.
But what does the Pope really mean in the words of his mouth and the messages in his actions? The Pope has said he wants a poor Church, for the poor, and what does that mean? The pope has stopped wearing the rich vestments and red shoes that were favoured by Benedict, and what does that mean?
Let us ask, first, hot why Francis has eschewed such things, but why Benedict embraced them?
Benedict embraced the trappings of glory because he believed that beauty was a path to God, and that the Lord deserved the best and most beautiful that we had to offer. He did it because he believed the Church had been harmed by a rupture with its past, and we needed to look to the past and heal that rupture to understand what it meant o be Catholic. To the Trads, it was the papacy for which they had been waiting, for it told them everything they believed and wanted was true, was right, was just. Benedict wished to reunite the Church with its past, and so he took on these outward signs of our history. But then he did something that has not been done by a pope in centuries, and only rarely before that, and abdicated.
That was the first time I had to defend a Pope to friends. Many felt hurt and abandoned by Benedict's actions: how could he just leave us like that? One particularly hurt blogger wrote that she could not believe that he simply left us because he was "tired", as she insisted on putting it. How would you feel, she wrote, if you were a soldier in thee British Army, and Wellington announced on the eve of Waterloo that he would not lead them into battle because he felt tired? That was how she felt by Benedict's resignation.
But Benedict did not say he was tired. He said he was no longer physically nor mentally capable of carrying out his duties as Supreme Pontiff. Benedict had plenty of experience with a Pontiff who was mentally and physically incapable of carrying out the duties of the office, for he was the one that kept the Vatican running during John Paul the Second's long, slow decline. I believe he did not want the Church to go through that again. Imagine again that you are a soldier in Wellington's army, and, on the eve of Waterloo, Wellington addresses the troops with the words: "Men, I am neither physically nor mentally capable of leading you into battle, but I shall do so, anyway." Tell me: would you be reassured?
So we lost Benedict too soon, with his work still half undone, but even in this he was a follower of tradition, for no Pope's job is ever done. And now, we have a man who is the first of his ind in many things, and with Francis we are left wondering, what does he mean to do? What are we to make of those white robes, that blank slate? What does this sudden break with Benedict's message, the man who has been thrust on us after we were abandoned by Benedict?
I cannot predict what is to come. As I told a friend, I am an anti seer, for almost every prediction I have ever made was a failure. I will say it seems highly unlikely that we will see the Pieta for sale on EBay, or that St Peter's will go on sale soon. To make ourselves poor would not only be of little use to the poor, it would make us mostly incapable of helping the poor at all. But I could be wrong.
Some have praised Francis for his humility and his love of the poor. They take heart at this prince of the church living in a humble apartment, cooking his own meals while he cares for a retired bishop. He lived a frugal life, and took the bus, rather than hire a driver to take him wherever he wished. Some have .pointed out that, if Francis truly wished to help the poor, he could easily do such a thing, and give the poor concrete help by employing a few of them to clean his palace, and to cook his meals, or to be the driver of his car.
Why does he do these things, and choose to help the poor one way, and not another? One possibility that I am considering is the possibility that Francis' preference for simplicity instead of sumptuousness may be a message from himself to himself, as much as it is a message to us. He may be reminding himself not to put any faith in the riches of this world. Consider this passage from Luke:
15And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ 16Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” 18Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” 20But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’For some, and perhaps for Francis, riches are a stumbling block to be avoided. As Christ says in this passage from Mark:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell,* to the unquenchable fire.* 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.*,* 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,* 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.It seems to me Francis may not trust himself with the riches of this world, and he may be telling himself to beware of them, too.
What if, and I say it tentatively, instead of looking for one message from papacy and another message from another, what if we place the two side by side?
I have said before that I have seen many people, both Traditional and Liberal, people who want the Mass to be either sumptuous or bare bones, in other words, the Mass as Benedict desired, or the Mass that Francis seems to prefer, who try and find the Mass that is perfect to their tastes, which is everything they want a Mass to be, and I find sometimes happens is that they end up worshipping the Mass, and not worshipping God through the instrument of the Mass. It is a very ironic, and very dangerous form of Idolatry.
To me, Benedict seemed to to say that it is right and just to give God our very best, in the most glorious way we know. Francis, it seems to me, seems to be saying: Beware whose glory you seek to serve, whether it be God's, or your own. It is not a case that one is right and the other is wrong. Nor were we abandoned. We have been been given the other side of the message.