Thursday, March 14, 2013

Symbolism and Pope Francis

When he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's, he wore a simple cross. It caught my eye right away. Was it wood? Probably not, but it was not bejeweled and ornate. He avoided the ermine-trimmed cape favored by his predecessor and wore plain black shoes. He bowed to the faithful, asking their blessing in silence before he blessed them. And, of course, he chose the name Francis.

I found all this stunning and unforgettable.

Critics may claim that the new pope from Argentina is not doing enough to reform the church, but his initial gestures, like his humble lifestyle, are themselves signs of reform.  Symbols are significant, especially in an ancient religion.

It seems that Pope Francis will transform the papacy in some ways, making it less regal.  He may not ride the public transit in Rome, as he did in Buenos Aires, but his very name signals in a powerful way solidarity with the poor.  He has, in an old interview, called the clericalism that sets priests apart in their own world, beholden to no one--the issue at the heart of the sex abuse cover-ups--sinful.

Many Catholics have found the Vatican cold, formal, distant--and for good reason. Nuns have been investigated, dissenters excommunicated, and cardinals guilty of civil crimes sheltered in Renaissance palaces. Clergy      who rape children have been protected by clericalism.

It is time for a change at the top, and the Jesuit from Argentina may not change doctrine but is already changing the image of the institution he has inherited.  He is bringing a simple, human style to a Vatican prone to grandiosity, a daily reminder of the Gospel message: "Blessed are the poor in spirit...."

The example of the poor man of Assisi, the original Francis, has been a gentle rebuke to the worldly power and wealth of the institutional church for 800 years.  He was a man, too, who met with the sultan during the Fifth Crusade, providing a model of Christian respect for Islam--another symbolic gesture that is important to remember at this time. Another reminder that symbols are important: they can speak more powerfully than words.

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