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The paradox of Pope Francis

2013 March 22
by Paul Vallely

The paradox of the new Pope Francis is that we know so little of him and yet, already, he has communicated so much. The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope took the world by surprise. Barely a handful of Vatican insiders had mentioned his name before the conclave. When the announcement came from the balcony of St Peter’s commentators scrabbled for his Wikipedia entry or the papabili profiles written for the US National Catholic Reporter by its former Rome correspondent the redoubtable John Allen. Yet in the few days since then Pope Francis has sent out a tide of small signifiers which can leave us in no doubt that a new era has begun in Rome – and a very different one.

It commenced when he first appeared on the papal balcony in plain white, wearing the simplest of wooden crosses, giving a calm unostentatious wave. When he spoke there was none of the traditional formality. He started with Good Evening, made a gentle joke, and asked the crowd to join him in pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict and began the Our Father. Before offering a blessing to the city and the world he asked those before him for “a favour”: that they would pray for him. He bowed his head.

When the papal blessing came it was not just to the church but to “all people of good will”. This was the language of Vatican II. It sent out a ripple of shock after the retrenchments of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pope Francis used the same language at his press conference a few days later – telling journalists that, believers and non-believers alike, he respected them as made in the image of God. It was there again in his homily at his inaugural Mass on Tuesday. This pope wants to speak to the whole of humanity.

Behind the scenes the signals to papal courtiers were even clearer. When the Master of Ceremonies offered Francis the traditional ceremonial red cape trimmed with ermine he is said to have replied: “No thank you, Monsignore. Carnival time is over”. And when he broke the seals of the Papal Apartment to take possession of his new home Francis shocked Vatican staff by saying: “There’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space.” This was the man, they should have known, who renounced the archiepiscopal palace in Buenos Aires to remain living in the small apartment he had occupied as Jesuit Provincial, cooking his own food there and taking the bus round the city.

Francis has quietly broken tradition after tradition. He refused to use a platform to elevate himself above those he described as his bother cardinals – a signal that this will be a Papacy which is less autocratically centrist and more collegial. His constant references to himself as Bishop of Rome seem code for that too. He had the elaborate inaugural liturgy pared down. He chose a simple papal coat of arms. He rejected the papal ring he was offered in favour of a second-hand one from Paul VI’s era – gold-plated rather than solid gold.

This is going to be an unpredictable papacy. Only hours after his election the first Jesuit Pope slipped out of the Vatican in an unmarked car to pray at basilica where the founder of his order once prayed. On the way back he asked the driver to stop at the conclave hostel to pick up his bags, pay the bill and thank the staff. Next day he again left the Vatican, incognito, to visit a sick friend in hospital.

The new Pope combines a fierce Jesuit intelligence – evident in the Ignatian discernment underpinning his inaugural sermon’s insistence that “authentic power is service” – and the profound spirituality of his chosen namesake Francis of Assisi who answered a call form God to “repair my church in ruins”. There are interesting times ahead.

from the Church Times

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