At the table in God's kingdom
The pope is a human being.
Perhaps sometimes in the past the pomp and circumstance associated with the bishop of Rome have obscured that fact. That’s changing.
For example, as early as the eighth century, the pope wore a tiara, which in the Middle Ages took the form of three crowns. It is no longer worn by the pope.
The pope also used to be carried on a platform, an elevated throne. No longer.
Pope Francis has been notable for his efforts to portray the humanity of the papacy.
He, however, was not the pope who ceased using the triple crown or the elevated throne. Pope Paul VI, perhaps breathing some of the air that came in through the window opened by St. John XXIII, abandoned use of the tiara, last wearing it in 1963. Pope John Paul I discontinued the practice of sitting on a throne, the sedia gestatoria, on a platform carried by others. And before Francis mingled with crowds, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict shook hands and kissed
But somehow Francis is different.
“He is in sync with his immediate predecessors,” said William Johnston, associate professor of religious studies, an expert in religious education and lay ministry. “But he has his own stamp.
“He made that clear from the get-go.”
Traditionally, when a new pope is introduced to the throngs waiting in St. Peter’s Square for white smoke, he comes out on a balcony, the loggia delle benedizioni, says a few words and blesses the crowd.
After Francis had blessed the people, he also asked them to pray for him.
Often Francis communicates with few or no words. He does not, for example, reside in the Palace of Sixtus V, which was built in the 16th century and houses offices, chapels and museums as well as the papal apartments.
During the conclave, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio stayed at Casa Santa Marta, a guesthouse where bishops and cardinals often stay when visiting Rome.
The pope’s change in residence has been seen by some as emblematic of living a life not of luxury but of simplicity. The pope certainly stresses concern for the poor. In the 2018 film Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, Francis looks directly into the camera and says, “Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.”
He pauses. And he repeats, “Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.”
“Poverty is at the center of the Gospel.” — Pope Francis
But Francis has said that is not the reason for living where he does.
“I cannot live alone or with just a few people! I need people, I need to meet people, to talk to people,” he said in a 2013 speech.
“And that’s why when the children from the Jesuit schools asked me: ‘Why did you do that? For austerity, for poverty?’
No, it was for psychological reasons, simply, because psychologically I can’t do otherwise.”
He lives, perhaps influenced by his background as a Jesuit, in community.
At the guesthouse, said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, director of the University of Dayton’s Institute for Pastoral Initiatives, “he celebrates Mass with people, he eats in common, he invites people to his table. He communicates not just with words but with the way he lives.”
Using a term from his discipline, Joseph Valenzano, chair of UD’s Department of Communication, said the pope is using a “rhetoric of spectacle.” The term, Valenzano said, is applied to actions such as a nation’s president visiting an area that had recently suffered a disaster. The president often says little and doesn’t bring immediate aid.
But he is present. And that says a lot.
Marianist founder Blessed William Joseph Chaminade wrote, “The main spirit of the Society [Marianist Family] is to present to the world the spectacle of a people of saints, and prove in this way that, today, as in the primitive church, the Gospel may be practiced in all the vigor of its spirit and letter.”
Francis communicates with words often in a manner somewhat different from his immediate predecessors.
He uses Twitter.
But he isn’t the first pope to do so. Pope Benedict XVI originated the Twitter account @pontifex, which means “bridge builder.” Soon after the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications launched Pope Benedict’s Twitter account, Ashley Puglia Noronha ’96 began working for the council as its English language official.
Noronha acknowledged that such a high-profile account comes with risks but said doing it was similar “to how Pope Pius XI saw the potential of the newly invented radio and called upon Guglielmo Marconi himself to collaborate and develop Vatican Radio in 1931.”
The communication styles of the three most recent popes show both differences and continuity. “John Paul II,” Noronha said, “was known as a great communicator and used the media very effectively during his papacy.”
John Paul II may have been the most media-savvy pope in history, according to Valenzano.
But, Noronha said, John Paul II “entrusted Cardinal Ratzinger and his collaborators at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to screen his official and theological communications to ensure accuracy and clarity.”
When Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, official communications would be checked by the papal theologian even though, Noronha said, “Benedict is considered a brilliant, encyclopedic, theological genius.”
With Francis, Noronha said, “we see that he has a very free style of communication, as seen in his off-the-cuff replies to journalists. He deviates from his official scripts and keeps journalists always on their toes.”
Journalists and Church officials may get a headache or two from that and official clarifications and amplifications may be slow in coming out of the Vatican, but the reaction of the flock to the shepherd who is Francis is often joyous. For example, at the end of a 2015 papal trip to South America, Reuters reported: “‘They wrote a speech for me to give to you. But speeches are boring,’ the Argentine pontiff said to loud cheers, casting aside his script. ‘Make a mess, but then also help to tidy it up. A mess which gives us a free heart, a mess which gives us solidarity, a mess which gives us hope.’”
He has the freedom to make a bit of a mess because of those who came before him.
“He is building on John Paul II and Benedict, who were clear teachers,” said Gloria Falcão Dodd, director of academic programs for UD’s International Marian Research Institute. “The teaching has been done. He has the gift of applying the teachings.”
She sees him as helping us to answer the question of how do we live today.
“Everybody has his own gift,” she said. “That his is different is good.”
His approach to using his gift of applying teachings is partially rooted in his Jesuit background, said Vincent Miller, who holds UD’s Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture.
“Francis usually speaks,” Miller said, “in the mode of a Jesuit spiritual director.”
So the pope talks about “the believer’s encounter with Christ in Scripture and in everyday life. He talks about the relationship, not about what he wants them to do. He assumes they have a relationship with Christ already in the nitty-gritty of their lives.”
So his focus is not on doctrine. As Dodd pointed out, that teaching has been done and done clearly.
Francis, Miller said, “is focusing on people’s lives. He is offering the Jesuits’ tools of discernment. He doesn’t simply talk about ideals but tries to move people toward Christ.”
Miller, like Noronha and Dodd, sees Francis building on the work of his predecessors — a continuity but with a somewhat different focus.
“John Paul II,” he said, “was a heroic figure stating the Christian message against the modern world. A great author, he focused on the Christian ideal.”
Benedict as pope was an academic, a systematic theologian, “a man,” Miller said admiringly, “who thought in paragraphs. Every word was the right word.”
Francis, however, speaks to believers personally, said Miller. He helps them to discern.
“What is really Jesuitical about him,” Miller said, is the Examen, a prayerful reflection on one’s day, an attempt to put Jesus into one’s life. As a Jesuit spiritual director or as pope, Francis is trying to help people do that.
Johnston sees the “particular stamp” of the current pope is being that of “accompaniment.” Speaking at World Youth Day in 2013 in Brazil, Francis said, “We need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey.”
Johnston sees that statement as helping to explain why Francis asked, as he was being introduced as pope, people to pray for him, why he paid his own hotel bill, why he carried his own bag, why he eats with a variety of people, why he literally walks with them.
“Francis wants to see the whole Church transformed, the papacy, the diocese, the parish,” Johnston said.
There is some thought that is why he was elected.
“Going into the conclave,” Zukowski said, “it appears that cardinals had reached consensus on three areas on which the new pope would need to focus — the Roman Curia (the administrative apparatus of the Holy See), the finances of the Vatican and communication. And there was some belief that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a good pulse on these areas even though he kept a low profile.”
Benedict as pope was a great theologian — “one of the best among popes,” Zukowski believes. “But administration was not his forte, nor that of most popes.”
One of Francis’ first steps in his administration was not to plunge into reorganizing the Church’s bureaucracy, but to listen. He appointed a commission of nine cardinals, representing all six inhabited continents, to advise him.
“He wanted the thinking of people from all over the world,” Zukowski said. “He really wanted to listen to the grass roots and respond.”
His restructuring of the Curia and his choices for new cardinals reflect his interest in bringing voices from around the world into the governance of the Church. Such a decentralization of the Church is an implementation of the Second Vatican Council.
“In my opinion,” said Dodd, whose teaching area runs from the Council of Trent to Vatican II, “it takes 100 years to implement a council. Decentralization was on the agenda of Vatican I, but it ended early because of war, having dealt with papal infallibility but not yet with the role of the bishops.”
Being South American, Francis himself brings to the papacy the voice of a new (for a pope) continent. Dodd believes that background may cause “some in North America and Europe to misunderstand him.”
For example, the lifting of the fees for the annulment process did not represent a weakening of Church teaching but acknowledgement of economic reality.
“Here,” Dodd said, “most dioceses have had a sliding fee schedule. Some dioceses in South America are poorer. So policy in those dioceses was, ‘If you can’t pay, come back when you can.’”
His South American background may also have shaped Francis’ abhorrence of clericalism, said history professor Michael Carter, a former chair of the University of Dayton Forum on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Today.
“Francis has spoken of saintly priests he knew there. On the other hand, some priests,” Carter said, “saw their vocations as careers.”
In his 2014 Christmas address to members of the Curia, Francis enumerated 15 diseases or illnesses to which his listeners might fall prey, such as rivalries, backbiting and indifference.
“Some saw that as a tongue-lashing to his closest collaborators,” Johnston said. “But he has held similar positions” as those to whom he was directing his remarks. So it could be seen, Johnston said, as “a genuine examination of conscience.”
Francis did, in his 2017 address to the Curia, offer a 19th-century witticism that some in his audience may not have found amusing: “Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush.”
Whatever impediments there may be to reform of the Curia, one can assume that its members understand what the pope is saying to them — that they know what he means when he says what is needed is not necessarily a change in personnel but a change in heart.
With some audiences, however, his words are either misunderstood or distorted in the retelling, through either ignorance or willfulness.
Some situations have a higher risk of distortion occurring than others. For example, the pope was quoted about hell by an atheist Italian “journalist” who does not take notes. That the reference sounded radically different from the other references the pope has made about hell should have prompted a skeptical reading of the reporter’s work but, in some quarters, did not.
While much of what Francis says is in a pastoral context, Miller said, “it is too often seen in political terms. The media, for example, focus on a few paragraphs in his recent document on holiness (“Gaudete et Exsultate” — Rejoice and Be Glad) and miss that the whole thing is on the beatitudes.”
And sometimes listeners or readers of the pope seem to take little note of the vehicle or context of a papal statement. An ex cathedra proclamation is different from saying the soup needs more salt. (Since papal infallibility was defined at Vatican I in 1870, the only ex cathedra decree has been Pius XII’s definition in 1950 of the Assumption of Mary
as an article of faith.) And there is a lot in between.
Vehicles used to communicate doctrine, teaching and caring also vary much. A tweet is not an encyclical; nor a homily, an apostolic exhortation.
Early in his papacy, Francis added something new to the mix of communication vehicles, according to William Portier, who holds the Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology at UD. Francis has fashioned, Portier said, a sort of interview and conversation, “minimally authoritative but unprecedented in its reach.” An example of this is the in-flight interview with reporters in which there is give-and-take; the pope does not control the flow of the conversation.
Since this reality did not have a Latin name, Portier created one. Noting that Francis had referred to himself as a “street priest” who felt somewhat confined in the Vatican, Portier suggested that the pope’s utterances while traveling might have the notation, de fide in viis, “concerning the faith in the streets.”
Such an approach comes with risks.
They are the risks of a shepherd who wants his Church’s ministers to know, as Francis has said, “the smell of the sheep.” Assuming that a firm foundation has been set by his predecessors, he is reaching out globally to the poor, the marginalized, the discarded — to those who may have neither his faith nor his understanding but who seek hope. That can be messy. It can make people uncomfortable.
To those in pastoral ministry, dealing with the messy, the controversial is not new. But for a pope to be doing it, said
Crystal Sullivan, executive director of UD’s Campus Ministry, is refreshing. “He speaks and acts,” she said, “with his pastoral spirit, consistently.”
Francis washing the feet of Muslim women may have made some people uncomfortable, she said. “This should cause us discomfort. That’s what being a practicing Christian is. Christianity should not be an ivory tower protecting us but should take us out to the other.”
In dealing with the Church’s Chilean sex abuse situation, Francis met with victims. One, Juan Carlos Cruz, spoke afterward of the meeting. He knows the Church’s teaching. But whether it could change was not to him the point. What impressed him was a fellow man reaching out to him, accompanying him.
“I saw a compassionate man,” Cruz said. “I saw someone who was caring for someone, not worrying if we are gay, straight, brown, white.”
The power of this pope’s gestures, actions, words reach beyond his Church. Dodd told a story of going to Washington, D.C., when the pope was visiting.
“I was too short to hold my camera high enough to get a photo of the pope,” she said. “A tall, young man next to me sent me one he took.”
The man was not a Catholic. Nevertheless, he had come to see Francis.
The reason he came, Dodd said, was that “the pope had inspired him to take up a life of service.”
A Pennsylvania grand jury report on child sexual abuse by 300 Roman Catholic priests and on the ensuing cover-ups by bishops and other church leaders was released as University of Dayton Magazine was going to press. On Aug. 20, Pope Francis wrote about “sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.”
The “Letter of His Holiness to the People of God” can be found at bit.ly/UDM_Francesco, which links to the index of a massive collection of papal writings. To read the letter, click on “Letters,” then on “2018.”