No more red shoes...


According to one commentator, Pope Francis has kept his black shoes. He also cast aside the ermine lined cape and collected his own luggage. He has made it clear that he intends to be pope in his own way, to continue as bishop of Rome as he was a bishop in Buenos Aires.

I am sure we can all chuckle at the thought of his minders getting into a flap as he just decides to go pray to the Blessed Mother without making arrangements. But its worth pausing for a moment to think what the impact of Francis' first actions could be.

The number one task is to re-establish the credibility of the Catholic Church on the world stage, and secondly the reform of the Vatican. His actions so far send a very clear message that this is already happening. The pomp of the Church is always an easy target for the hacks and the popular punters in the pub or around the dinner table, and Francis of Assisi is perhaps the Church's most popular saint precisely because he was so radical in his renunciation of pomp and the trappings of power. It is a vision which evokes the very heart of the Gospel, that evokes... the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. And it is interesting, that despite all the attacks on the Catholic Church the figure of Jesus always remains above the fray. Sure, we have some offensive art, and stupid things like the Jerry Springer stage show with Jesus dressed in a nappy, but Jesus of Nazareth rarely comes into for criticism, let alone as a paedophile, unlike Mohammed for example. By evoking Francis of Assisi, by taking simplicity and humility to the heart of what it means for Francis to be pope, he is evoking Jesus and putting Him clearly at the very heart of the Catholic Church, in a way that people beyond the walls of the Church can recognise. In this he is a sort of parable or symbol of what Pope Benedict was writing and preaching about: making Jesus clearly the very centre of what it means to be Catholic.

Humble people, I mean genuinely humble people, can also be really, really difficult to deal with because you can't argue with them very easily without feeling bad. Mother Teresa had that knack and it drives officialdom potty. They work with rules, schedules, and control through knowledge, knowing how the system works. Humble people in power usually don't give a fig about schedules and etiquette and so forth, and just cut to the chase. And this renders the operators of the systems...powerless. And robbed of power people aren't usually very co-operative and can seethe with resentment while on the surface smiling sweetly. You pick it up with the body language, how they hover about wanting to spring back into control and chaffing as they are left superfluous.

I think we saw a little of that today at the Mass with the cardinals. If you take a close look at the dynamics around the altar you can see the tension. Pope Francis is uncomfortable - he has said Mass every day for years as a bishop, yet he got lost at the opening, expecting the MC to point to the text, which he then did, while the MC should have been focused so that we didn't notice anything. There was no flow, no chemistry and there was a sort of unease liturgically. Pope Benedict was in his element in celebrating grand baroque liturgies, Francis isn't. You could see that in his choice of mitre. A simple one, not a grand statement all embroidered with gold thread. And I am sure that the dear MC and the liturgical entourage are absolutely devastated. It's not that Pope Francis was liturgically incorrect but he just toned things down, and made everyone feel less important, more humble, more stripped down to size. He could have been your parish priest celebrating Mass, not the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, lost to mere mortals in a cloud of incense and a crowd of cassock wearing assistants, (what I have heard sometimes called 'sanctuary rats').

In any 'court' those who are close to the monarch like to feel important. It doesn't matter if your only role is as taking up the daily paper, the fact is it is the queen's daily paper. Status rubs off, puffs up, then starts to strut. It attracts those who need that sort of 'elevation', that sense of being somehow important, of being a little bit different, even a little bit better than others. When your monarch is infallible, Christ's Vicar on earth, then that offers a considerable amount of cache which can rub off. Its not that the Vatican staff is wicked, merely just human. We all like to feel special, to feel a little different, to feel elevated above the crowd. But it is corrosive for an organisation which is supposed to be about humility, self-emptying, about God emptying Himself to become a little child born in a stable and a man cast out and crucified. Even in a non-spiritual context it is rife for corruption, privilege and cover up and you have to constantly be on your guard.

Pope Francis won't really have a court. He isn't about to resurrect the Papal Tiara. And so the whole curial system will shudder, tremble and become stripped of status, magic and influence. They just wont be - or certainly feel - so important, especially as they did under such princely figures as Pius XII, the magisterial John Paul II and particularly the humble but very orderly and Baroque Benedict. This could work as a means of reform, if the poor Pope can keep his nerve and keep to his black shoes, while making those around him feel valued and loved even if stripped of their grandiose sense of power and importance. Or it could be a disaster, with the curia dysfunctional, uncooperative, resentful and in parts hostile and disloyal or worst of all, he concedes first on one area, then another, until we find even the red shoes have come back. 

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