There has been a lot of talk about Pope Francis’ “style”. I must candidly admit that it has rather “wrong-footed” me, and I am sure I am not alone. From his master of ceremonies to his security guards, from media commentators to people on the other end of the telephone, no one seems sure of what Pope Francis will do or say next. What does it all mean?
One thing it emphatically does not mean is this: New pope’s style is an implicit criticism of Benedict’s papacy. Not unless we are to say that St Paul’s “style” was an “implicit criticism” of St Peter’s “style”. (Of course, there are some who would say that).
A better take on things is this: Both Benedict and Francis are holy men – but with naturally different personal styles
Let’s be quite clear: there were many, including many younger Catholics (and, of course, the host of this ‘ere blog) who were attracted by Pope Benedict’s “style” – especially in regard to liturgical or ceremonial matters. We felt that he brought a great dignity to the papal office and with that to the whole Church. He was obviously different from his predecessor – whom some dismissively called “a show man” – but that didn’t matter, we knew and loved them both.
Pope Francis has again and again shown us that his style will be much simpler. But what would you expect from a man who took the name of St Francis as his own? It was a radical decision, and it seems to me to reflect in our new Pope that same deep and radical fervour for the Gospel that St Francis showed. Was St Francis’ radical poverty a “criticism”? Well, yes, let’s be honest, it was. And a deeply challenging one at that for the Church of his day. I expect that those of us who are comfortable within the fold of the Church will also feel ourselves challenged by our new Holy Father. But I don’t think this is about us.
I read this morning this article in The Telegraph: “Why even atheists love Pope Francis”. This article got me thinking. I am very much inclined to think that Pope Francis’ simplicity is not simply “simplicity for simplicity’s sake”. He knows what he is doing.
There was a time when ceremonial grandeur attracted people to the Church. There some societies in which it still does. Unfortunately, our western society is no longer such. While the grandeur of the Church remains very attractive to some of us, there are a lot of others for whom (rightly or wrongly – and I would definitely say wrongly) this grandeur interpreted as a display of wealth in the face of the overwhelming poverty of many in the world. In a word, it spells “hypocrisy”. To many has become an impenetrable barrier to hearing the message of the Gospel.
Now I know that many of us have suffered the horrors of banality in the last 50 years or so in the Church – where the beautiful has been ditched for the common, and the lowest-common-denominator at that. So I am not talking about that. But we are mistaken if we think that the only kind of beauty that can be put up against such banal ugliness is grandeur. There is beauty in simplicity too. Or, to put it otherwise, simplicity can be as beautiful as grandeur. And attractive.
So, I think Pope Francis has judged that – in order that the Church’s message be heard – a new kind of beauty needs to shine forth from the Church at the highest level: the beauty of simplicity. This is not a criticism of his predecessor, or of those of us who happen to find grandeur attractive. It is an “evangelical strategem”, if I may call it that. It is the Pauline principle, so well explained by that apostle in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
We are living in an emergency situation: and the emergency is the New Evangelisation. We can live without mozzettas and red shoes for a bit. We can’t live without the Gospel. And neither can the world.