Pope Francis... and the new Papal Pectoral Cross

The Pectoral Cross worn by the new Holy Father, Pope Francis I

I must admit I am not just excited, I am very, very excited. This new pope, if he survives the curia, is really quite something and could really bring a very new edge to the life of Catholics and the Church's inter-action with the world.

OK, so the headline stuff is quite impressive: first non-European pope, a pope from South America which is the Catholic Church's most important region now, first Jesuit, and he calls himself 'Francis' - not just the first pope to do so, but in choosing Francis of Assisi, perhaps the world's most popular saint, you are left wondering why on earth no one chose the name before? So, reason to be a bit excited, something a little different. But he is the son of Italians, so in a way perhaps a compromise candidate, taking things back to the 'good old days' when Italians ruled the Church. He is also 76, so no spring chicken, so already the pundits are talking about when he might retire (inevitable after Benedict's abdication), so reason to be a little excited, but not too much.

However, I guess like a billion other people who had never heard of the guy before tonight, I have been digging around to find out what he thinks, for clues to take us behind the headlines. And I am... well VERY excited.

First, let me patch together some little quotations:

"In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don't baptize the children of single mothers because they weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage," Bergoglio told his priests. "These are today's hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it's baptized!"

Bergoglio compared this concept of Catholicism, "this Church of 'come inside so we make decisions and announcements between ourselves and those who don't come in, don't belong," to the Pharisees of Christ's time - people who congratulate themselves while condemning all others.

"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers." 

"Only someone who has encountered mercy, who has been caressed by the tenderness of mercy, is happy and comfortable with the Lord."

These two quoted by the well respected John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter in his pre-conclave pithy biographies. 

Now some more biographical tit bits: he gave up the lifestyle of his predecessors as a real prince of the Church. He cooked for himself, gave up the limo and took the bus. He also washed and kissed the feet of AID victims. The latter could be a bit of a media moment, a sort of gimmick, but the previous things are about his own lifestyle, what he chose to do with how he lived his own life. It thus speaks about who he is, the sort of man that now walks the corridors of the Vatican as the Supreme Pontiff, who's word is now law and which can, at a pinch, make things happen.

This is about as close as you get to someone who might just turn up at the Vatican and sell off the Sistine Chapel, the stuff which pundits and authors of thriller novels love but which we rarely think credible. Previously, when reading through the profiles,. it was the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila who got my attention precisely because he was of the same ilk - no limo, bus to work, and bringing people in off the streets to have lunch with him. So, yes, this really excites me as it raises the hope that a very different spirit will be at work in the Vatican, one which wont just reform the machinery of governance in the Church, but the spirit by which it is done.

But lets go back to the AIDS victims and the washing of feet. Now this is a social conservative who has no truck with gay marriage. No surprise there, given that you wouldn't be a cardinal if you so much as sneezed over this issue. However, the act of washing the feet of people with AIDS, taking compassion for them to the very heart of the liturgy, that puts that opposition into a very definite context. This isn't a man wanting to drive people out, to hound and scold.  This seems to be a man wanting to bring in, to drawn people closer to God whatever their circumstances, with tenderness, compassion, insight and humility. 

That he might just be such a man is underlined with those thoughts about the conditions of the poor, the indifference of the wealthy, and the reprimand, in the sharpest terms, for priests who want some rigour and point the finger at those who have had children outside of marriage. This sort of churlish attitude towards the lapsed and those whose lives don't conform to the Church's norms is something common I have found among some parts of the clergy in the UK and it is one of the key dividing lines in pastoral policy and practice, the sort of experience which ordinary people have of the Church, and in having such a strong line in favour of mercy, generosity and compassion it could potentially be very divisive among the clergy from cardinals downwards. This really could be a revolution of the most fundamental kind that would have a direct impact on the lives of the millions of Catholics who have drifted away from the Church.

That he has chosen to take the name of Francis, that humble, compassionate radical would surely suggest that it is his intention, his hope, to bring something of this revolution to the work of the successor of Peter, a work which is played out upon a world stage, and a voice which will be heard for better or worse. That he chose to wear that simple pectoral cross, certainly not gold and I would hazard a guess that it is base metal, is another sign (and yes we are clutching at visual straws here) of his intention, his spirit as he enters the role of Supreme Shepherd. That he bowed before the crowd, not just asking for prayers but making a moment of silence for the crowd to pray, to impart their 'blessing' upon him, before he blessed them and the world, this was a moment that tradition was deepened by picking up perhaps a lost thread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a thread not perhaps always woven tightly into the garments of the Church and its princes. 

And it is all there, in the Pectoral Cross he wore as he gave his first papal blessing. It has taken me a little time working on Photoshop, but here it is revealed: it bears the most ancient of images of Jesus Christ, the image of the Good Shepherd, bearing the lost sheep upon his shoulders in the midst of the flock. Above is the Holy Spirit, radiating down in this ministry of mercy and compassion. And Jesus wears the simple garments of a shepherd boy, like David who became King, and Moses who knelt before the burning bush on the mountain side, his feet bare as he heard God's call to God to Pharaoh and demand that he let His people go free.

So yes, I am deeply excited at this pope who invites us to walk the 'path of love' with him and to speak it to the world, one who issues that invitation humbly and compassionately, and with a genuine love for the vast numbers of the poor who are the majority of his flock, both within and without the walls of the Church. 


  1. Thanks for this - the simple lines in bas relief remind me of Annie Valloton's spare pen and ink illustrations that are so evocative dear to those who love poverty
    the image at Ezekiel 34:15,16 I used recently in the order of service for Mass of Christian burial of a dear friend
    "I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak . . ." (a rare but beautiful OT reading, not included in selections for the requiem Rite in our parish's copy of the Roman Missal, but valid none the less)
    FYI here's Annie in action - "Noe: Ecoute! C'est une ordre de Dieu" (shame she doesn't equate the ark of Noah with the barque of Peter -- but since God takes care of His own who's to say she won't be in that number when the saints go marching in?)


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