An article I wrote for the Herald on 3 April 2013 about the implications of Pope Francis’ first few gestures as the new leader of the church.

One of the surprising things about Pope Francis is the amount of interest he has generated not just from Catholics and from other Christians, but from people of other faiths and even atheists.

The other day I received an email from a relative:

Although I am not a Catholic Christian, I am quite impressed and excited over the news of … Cardinal Bergoglio becoming Pope Francis … due mainly to his humility and social idealism. A simple but ‘electrifying’ personality. You feel extremely connected to him, fatherly, unlike his predecessor … Pope Francis has exemplified leadership by example with a Christ-like simple lifestyle.

Who among our leaders has occasionally or even just once in their lives taken a ride on often crowded public transport? Even as the leader of the Argentinian Catholic Church, he didn’t live at the grand Archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires but chose to sleep on a simple bed in a downtown apartment room heated by only a small stove, cooked his own meals for years, commuted via train or bus to church instead of using a chauffeured limousine. The Catholic Church now has a genuine hope for positive change.

And this relative is not the only one. Many others who have drifted away from the church out of disillusionment and disenchantment are now sitting up and taking notice of the new Pope’s gestures. “I have friends telling me they now feel like coming back to the church,” said one Catholic activist. Even newspaper reports keep referring to the new Pope’s simplicity and humility.

The life-style of simplicity that Pope Francis is putting forward somehow has a special appeal for many people. It is what drew many to icons like Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

More importantly, it is the way Jesus wanted his followers to live: Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peace-makers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And deep down, people can sense that.

It would be easy to dismiss the new Pope’s various gestures merely as manifestations of his simplicity, humility and connection to the poor. But it is not simplicity for simplicity’s stake. Pope Francis’ gestures since his election appear to have deeper layers of meaning and hint of the direction he wishes to take the church.

Let’s look at each of his gestures in a little more detail.

Simple attire: A comparison of this Pope’s attire during his inauguration with that of his predecessors is striking. Gone are the mozetta (coloured cape), the elaborate mitre, the gold ring, the red velvet shoes. This is more than a turn to simplicity. It hints of the removal of imperial trappings. It was during the tenure of Pope Leo the Great (440-461) that the bishop of Rome took on imperial trappings along with temporal power as the bureaucracy grew centralised. It wasn’t always like that from the beginning.

Bishop of Rome: Pope Francis appears keen also to stress his credentials as Bishop of Rome, presiding with charity over other churches. It harkens back to a more ecumenical understanding of the role of the Bishop of Rome in relation to other churches. Eyebrows were also raised at the unprecedented presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Batholomew I at Pope Francis’ inauguration – the first time a patriarch has attended in a millennium. It also hints of a more collegial relationship with other bishops as envisaged by the Second Vatican Council.

A preference for public transport: This suggests a greater appreciation of environmental issues especially the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change. In the first days of his papacy, Francis had already mentioned our broken relationship with Creation. Expect a renewed focus on the natural environment and harmony with all Creation. Francis of Assisi would have approved.

Washing of feet: His choice of a juvenile detention centre for the Maundy Thursday washing of feet spoke volumes. The detainees whose feet were washed included Muslims and women. No pope has ever washed the feet of a woman or a Muslim.

This suggests a three-prong concern that could be on the papal agenda: a great concern for the poor and marginalised — in keeping with the preferential option for the poor as laid out in Catholic Social Teachings and articulated in the Medellin Conference (the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia) in 1968. This is the direction the Spirit is leading the church. The Tablet reported the wife of the El Salvador president as saying that the Pope was supportive of the move to canonise the slain archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who championed the rights of the poor and oppressed in that country and is now held in high esteem by the poor across Latin America.

His washing the feet of a Muslim woman suggests that the Pope will be more open to greater emphasis to inter-religious dialogue and a renewed examination of the role of women in the Church. And that can’t be a bad thing given the prominent role played by women in the New Testament and the scandals in a male-dominated church hierarchy and curia.

Paying his own bill at the Vatican hotel:
This suggests not just personal accountability but institutional accountability – not taking advantage of positions of privilege and power for personal gain. It also means being accountable at all levels of the Church for how funds are used and accounted for. Next stop for Pope Francis: The Vatican Bank?

His shunning of the papal apartments: Perhaps no other gesture has sent more shockwaves down the Church than Pope Francis’ decision to shun the regal papal apartment (described by some press reports as the ‘papal penthouse’ overlooking St Peter’s Square). This sends a clear if uncomfortable message to the rest of the church that we have to adopt a simpler life-style. Will the rest of the hierarchy around the world take heed of the example that has been set right at the very top?

This gesture reminds us of Jesus’ words that those who want to serve the church must not lord it over the people but assume the role of servant-leadership. How are ministers to identify with the poor and ordinary people’s struggles if they lead lives of luxury and comfort far removed from the experience of the flock? Indeed, Francis urged ministers to move beyond parish walls, to where the poor and the suffering are rather than assume the role of ‘managers’ or ‘intermediaries’. When a priest “doesn’t put his own skin and own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks” from people he has helped, said Francis. “This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become in a sense collectors of antiquities or novelties —instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep’…”

Certainly, all these gestures would lead us to a church of the poor. For many ordinary Catholics, the new pope in his first week has spoken volumes not so much through his words but through his deeds. Francis of Assisi’s biographer Thomas of Celeno wrote of the saint: “His words were neither hollow nor ridiculous, but filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, penetrating the marrow of the heart, so that listeners were turned to great amazement.” But through the powerful Spirit-filled gestures in his first few days at the helm, Pope Francis has more than lived up to the Franciscan rule: “All the Friars … should preach by their deeds.”

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