Institutions Opinion

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis and a new vision of Catholic reform

(RNS) From the very first moment of his unexpected election as Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina has embraced a series of small departures from established tradition.

Detail of St. Francis of Assisi from ``Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St. Francis and four Angels,'' a fresco executed by Giovanni Cimabue between 1278-80 for the lower church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, Italy. RNS file photo courtesy of the Custodian of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi.

Detail of St. Francis of Assisi from “Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St. Francis and four Angels,” a fresco executed by Giovanni Cimabue between 1278-80 for the lower church of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi, Italy. RNS file photo courtesy of the Custodian of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi.

He took his papal name from a great nonconforming saint of the Middle Ages — and one that no other pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church has taken. He then refused to stand on an elevated platform that would separate him from his “brother cardinals,” and asked the people of Rome to bless him rather than receive his blessing. He even insisted on returning to his hotel to settle his account (as though his credit were in any doubt).

Everyone who knew Bergoglio saw in him an unconventional and even unpredictable figure. He lived in Buenos Aires in a modest apartment rather than in the archbishop’s palace. He dispensed with a private limousine and took public transportation to work. He even cooked his own meals at home in his own kitchen.

Now, as pope, he has continued this pattern by ignoring long-settled traditions of what a pope should wear, where he should reside, and how he should conduct himself in public functions. Francis has chosen not wear the gold papal cross to which he is entitled, instead wearing the more simple cross he wore in Argentina. He also seems satisfied with normal men’s footwear, avoiding the elegant red loafers Pope Benedict normally wore in public.

Of course, not every surprise move by Francis was universally hailed. Vatican insiders were not fully prepared for the pope’s refusal to occupy the papal apartments, and they were surprised by his determination to include two women in a foot-washing service during Holy Week. The fact that one of the women selected was Muslim did not make matters easier to explain to some traditional Catholics.

Admittedly, Pope Francis could be nothing more than an oddity, holy but eccentric. But it would be a mistake to conclude from his first unprecedented actions that he is, in principle, disdainful of Catholic tradition.

On the contrary, the new pope seems attuned to very specific Catholic traditions of church reform that claim his attention and color his vision of genuine Christianity.

First in his list of church reformers is St. Francis of Assisi, whose name he bears as pope. In his early years, St. Francis was an unlikely candidate for sainthood. He had been a soldier and a privileged member of society, inheriting great wealth from his father. Yet Francis’ adult conversion to serious Christianity turned his world upside down.

St. Francis divested himself of all his wealth — or, as he put it, he married a widow named Lady Poverty. He did not enter a cloister as an earlier generation might have done, but sent his disciples into the villages of Europe to preach, to live a life of holiness, and to embrace Christ’s poverty, following a Lord who had nowhere to lay his head.

It was a formula, as St. Francis saw it, for the renewal of a church “in ruins.”

St. Francis took sound teaching and holy living out of the cloister and down from the city and scattered it across the countryside. It was an old idea — as most good reform ideas are — and it put teaching, preaching, holy living, and voluntary poverty into a potent combination that confronted and confounded skeptics and believers alike.

Sharp thinking and blameless living overcame any credibility gap that the church might have suffered, and it led nominal Christians to a re-engagement with serious Christianity. Put another way, the goal of Franciscan renewal was a church that knows the right thing to say and has earned the moral right to say it.

Admiring the work of St. Francis means admiring a lively (and effective) tradition of Catholic reform. The new pope, like St. Francis himself, has inherited problems that can in fact offer a fresh opportunity for renewal. Or not.

Under the circumstances, it is not at all surprising that Pope Francis prefers a modest guest house in the Vatican to the papal apartments he was offered. Any genuine disciple of St. Francis would, of course, agree.

(David C. Steinmetz is the Kearns Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity at Duke University.)

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David Steinmetz


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  • No offense ~ but I’ve read numerous articles on how pope Francis took his name after Francis of Assisi. Having studied under the Jesuits, knowing that their love of Francis Xavier is rivaled only by that of their founder, Ignatius de Loyola, I can’t help but question whether he took the name specifically in reference to Francis Xavier. Had he loved Francis of Assisi so much, would it not stand to reason that he would have been a Franciscan ?

  • Always the americans non catholics, where enviest about catholicism and always tried to destroyed it, but they failed, my question to you white red necks
    lutherans is, where was your church during the slevery, segregation and civil rights movement ?? the answer: silence protecting the white population

  • Chris, not that Im a doubting Thomas – but can you give me a “www”? I’d like to read that more in depth.

  • Thanks Dr Howard! Read it. I must admit, I’m a lapsed catholic, but the more I read of this man, the more he moves me. Very cool article. Thank you.

  • I think there is a danger of “newness” that typically wears thin after a while. It’s human nature to always be clamoring for some “new” gadget, car etc. and then after a while we grow bored with it. With all this talk of “newness’ in the church I am concerned folks will lose sight of what has worked for over 2000 years in the catholic church, the clear teachings of The Truth as commanded by Jesus Chirst Himself. It seems like all of a sudden Pope Francis is more “Christlike” than past Popes. Let us not put aside the sound teachings & fidelity of past Popes who have contributed greatly to help guide the faithful in an ever increasing godless society. I hope & pray Pope Francis does the same as his predecessors.

  • “elegant red loafers” — Red is a color symbolizing different things in the Church. For example it can represent the Holy Spirit — as in the tongues of fire at Pentecost. Or it can symbolize martyrdom as in “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” My understanding was that papal red slippers indicate a pope’s total dedication to the Church and God, showing that he would even give his life if necessary for the faith. I wonder if the new pope is saying he wouldn’t give his life for the faith by not wearing the traditional footwear ? So far I am less than impressed by this new pontiff. I am not a non-Catholic or a fallen away Catholic so that may explain my lukewarmness about him. I actually know what the Church is about.

  • Christ, His Church and Christianity is all about Substance over Form. History reports that Our Church periodically forgets it’s lessons and is taken to task by Reformation.

    Study the Old Testament and find reports of ignoring Substance and preferring Form, God’s Chosen People witnessed the replacement of His Sinai Covenant with the rise and fall of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Temple.

    Today we have scandal and sin in Christ’s Church requiring the attention of a Spirit-led firmhand. Pershaps Pope Francis is just what is needed to again correct our course. Let’ s pray that he succeeds

  • No offense, but there seems to be some uncharitable “baiting” here. People are allowed to blog their sentiments – as you are yours – but to say “I am less than impressed by this new pontiff… I actually know what the Church is about,” seems like a comment not best made in the spirit of any of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

  • I love the church and i love the holy spirit for giving us this Pope in this critical time,when things of God took the least value in d society.Christianity should come together to realise that No POPE NO CHRISTIANITY.The world hv prepared to swallow us but thank God for the Holy see.The gate of hell shall not Prevail u.

  • I hope there is no departure from the tradition that “truth and reason” are the tenants of faith development. Pope Benedict was making strong progress in educating millions of poorly catechized Catholics (following decades of weak and often outright erroneous interpretation of Vatican II) on the true meaning of Catholicism; through theological works, defense of tradition, and the promotion of the Year of Faith. The Holy See needs to continue on this effort, and integrate a strong sense of charity and humility into the New Evangelisation. We are, in general, a Church of “ill-informed” worshipers, rarely taking the time and effort as individuals to dive into the rich depths of our faith, doctrines, and traditions, but rather we opt for the easier path of following a populist culture and a “protestantized”, watered-down, “menu-driven” Catholicism.

  • “Catholic,” there is no need to place any stress on the symbolism that might be assigned a pair of red shoes–or a red (scarlet) cassock, skullcap and cape (mozetta). One of the symbols of black shoes and socks under black trousers is the identification with the typical costume of the clerical state, to which Francis belongs by virtue of his ordination as a deacon, nevermind priesthood and episcopacy.

    Perhaps you want the pope to dress in the traditional manner of popes. He has chosen not to. Thus, you must look to others of his features to point to his dignity and to his office–and, above all, to his mission. You will see Francis’s dedication to his mission not in his attire but in his deeds. It is, after all, what we do that defines us, not what we wear. No?

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