BARELY two weeks after assuming the throne of St. Peter, Pope Francis, 76, who declared that he wants a “poor Church for the poor,” has done nothing but back up his words with the right actions.
And what a breath of fresh air it has been! Much has been said about his desire to keep things simple—insisting on riding the bus with his “brother cardinals,” for instance, instead of being driven alone in the more formal and luxurious papal limousine the day after he was elected, to appearing in person later in the day to settle his bills at a church-run hotel, where he stayed in the run-up to the conclave.
You’d appreciate this pope’s gestures even more when contrasted with the not-so-distant actions taken by some of our so-called “Pajero bishops,” who didn’t think twice of turning a blind eye to the sins, scandals and indiscretions that rocked the past administration, just to get scraps of government largesse paid for by the Filipino people.
If it were up to Pope Francis, he would even probably fly back for a few days in Buenos Aires to personally settle some unfinished business there, including perhaps terminating his lease on a modest apartment he once lived in during his past life as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Well, he did the next best thing by phoning his newspaper agent in Argentina, telling him, for obvious reasons, that he would no longer be able to continue subscribing to the La Nacion daily. How hands-on could this pope get?
In moves calculated to bring the Catholic Church closer to the faithful, Pope Francis has also ditched traditional, intricate and expensive papal garb—including his predecessor’s signature red Prada shoes—in favor of a more down-to-earth white apparel, wooden cross and a gold-plated silver ring, while wading through crowds, shaking hands, engaging in small talk and kissing babies at every chance he gets.
His training as a folksy, no-nonsense pastor, who once rode the bus to seek out his flock in the slums of Buenos Aires, has become all the more evident and refreshing compared with his predecessor’s more formal, almost stiff style of getting the message across to the “City and to the World.”
It seems the only people unhappy these days at the turn of events concerning this pope, a walking security nightmare, are members of his close-in security, as they constantly have to anticipate and second-guess His Holiness’ next moves. But give them time, and they’ll soon get used to it.
As I write this, Pope Francis has again overturned tradition as he attends to a number of Holy Week rituals in the busy Catholic calendar. No, he isn’t about to do away with the washing of the feet this Holy Thursday.
But instead of washing the feet of 12 retired priests playing the roles of the 12 apostles, as Pope Francis’ predecessors usually did in the past, he’s going to a youth detention center to wash the feet of 12 inmates from various parts of the world, said CNN’s Ben Wedeman. Some of these new and younger “apostles,” in fact, are not even Catholics.
By doing so, he has effectively underscored and gone back to the Catholic Church’s original vision and mission as a universal church, where people regardless of color, education, profession and station in life are welcome to repent, mend their ways and walk in Jesus’ footsteps. And that includes sinners—from pimps to prostitutes, drug addicts to murderers, tax collectors to politicians.
A few days earlier, Pope Francis again made headlines when he met with his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s official summer residence. Rather than kneel at a designated papal kneeler (it’s a tradition!), the new pope chose to kneel side by side on a longer pew with Benedict as they prayed together in the residence’s chapel.
Even Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Conrado de Quiros, who, based on his writings, has come short of declaring to the world that he’s a lapsed Catholic (or even perhaps an atheist) is impressed.
Brothers and equals
“We are brothers,” Pope Francis declared. It is, de Quiros said, “a much nicer way of saying, ‘We are equals.’”
“The meeting, brief as it was, was not without its symbolic value,” de Quiros wrote in his March 28 column. “Which must suggest that the new Pope may be humble, but he is also savvy in the ways of the world. He may do things out of conviction but he is also aware of the power of image.”
Much has also been said of his reluctance to move in to the hastily refurbished 12-room papal apartment with a sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square. He has agreed to move, however, from a one-room affair to Suite 201 also at Casa San Marta—bigger, but still modest dwellings for a man of his stature and responsibilities.
He did so, said reports, due to practical concerns. Apart from his own room, the suite has enough space for a living room for him to receive guests and an office where he could attend to his more earthly duties.
Rather than be isolated in luxurious surroundings and fawning intermediaries should he move to the papal apartment, Pope Francis reportedly relishes the opportunity to interact regularly with both lay and religious people beyond his inner circle, which he gets to do every time he steps out of his suite and makes his way to the hotel’s lobby.
Style over substance?
CNN anchor Monita Rajpal, while talking to Wedeman, made a valid point. All of these supposed changes, she said, are more of style than of substance. In short, they have yet to address or give us clues as to how and where Pope Francis intends to take the Catholic Church from here.
Wedeman had an equally astute and measured observation. As the new spiritual and temporal leader of 1.2 billion Catholics the world over, Pope Francis, he said, is expected to attend to a slew of activities and rituals associated with Holy Week.
But the people would know soon enough where the church is headed under this pope’s watch once he starts appointing new members of his immediate staff, the so-called Curia, a week or so into Easter.
No doubt, he’s expected to make not a few “progressive” moves to repair the damage within and outside the church as well as attempt to win back lapsed Catholics and win over new converts to the faith.
But critics shouldn’t expect him to veer away from traditional Catholic teachings and opposition to certain issues such as gay marriage, married priests, women priests and even the right of married couples to opt for artificial forms of family planning.
Proponents of gay marriage, for instance, if they can wait out that long, are bound to see more of the same in, say, the next 2,000 years (perhaps, even more).
If there are certain “non-negotiables” that define us as individuals (and make us us), there are also certain “truths” and tenets that define the Catholic Church. I’m afraid I myself don’t have all the answers on certain issues involving the church, which I find hard to accept, let alone understand.
Instead of zeroing in on our differences with a man-made institution supposedly tasked by Jesus Christ, and guided by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s mission on earth, we can start by focusing on certain commonalities we have with the Catholic Church.
And in a time of dramatic changes and real-time transitions, the Catholic Church couldn’t have picked a better shepherd than someone as simple and as humble as the bespectacled and beaming Pope Francis.