Should Pope Francis have Abandoned the Trappings of His Office?


April 15, 2014

Father Longenecker had an amusing blog last week, headlined “archbishops should live in palaces.” “I think the Pope should live in the Apostolic Palace,” he says, “and I think Archbishop Wilton [Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, who is moving out three months after moving in] should live in his brand new $2.2m home. I think Bishops should live in these grand homes—but they should do so like one of those impoverished English aristocrats who can’t afford to heat their vast Downton Abbey, and so live in one room in the attic wearing three sweaters and eating cat food casseroles that they cook in a microwave.”

I think the bit about the cat food could be a joke: but Fr Dwight is serious enough about the rest. He thinks that bishops should live in these grand buildings in community with other priests or brothers if they are religious, and should open them up as hostels for recovering addicts and the other end of the buildings maybe as women’s shelters and that they should bring in some Mother Teresa nuns to run these now possibly over-ambitious establishments. You get the idea. This, he says, would “be a far more significant sign of contradiction than simply moving out to a mean little room somewhere because it would say something more profound about worldly wealth and property.” I agree with all that. Cardinal Bergoglio lived alone in a small flat in Buenos Aires and cooked for himself, but wasn’t that because he actually preferred to live like that? And I don’t see there’s anything wrong, either, with a bishop living in a certain degree of modest comfort: after a hard day on the stump, why shouldn’t he have somewhere decent to come back to, and why shouldn’t he have a hot meal waiting for him when he gets there, and his bed turned down and maybe a sweetie on his pillow?

Fr Dwight goes on to argue that there’s nothing intrinsically good about poverty. I agree with that, too, but I think that when a bishop moves out of his “palace” and a pope refuses to move into the papal apartments, they’re making a point not about poverty but about humility (their own). And though Pope Francis may indeed be a genuinely humble person what I object to particularly in the media coverage of his pontificate is that because of the way he has chosen to live in the Vatican, in a flat in the Casa Santa Marta rather than where popes are supposed to live, he is ipso fact a lot more humble than previous popes, who after all simply surrendered themselves to the way things had always been done, as a way of identifying themselves with the traditions their predecessors had always embodied, as a visible indication of a hermeneutic of continuity.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Nothing I say now, with one or two minor exceptions, is intended as a major criticism of the current pontiff: I think he is playing a blinder, and I am not one of those reactionaries who interprets his frisky ways as an indication that he is some kind of liberal: I am, rather, one of those reactionaries who thinks that in spite of all those spontaneous remarks that have to be corrected later, he is just as reactionary as I am. He’s giving the Vatican a considerable shakeup, which was long overdue: and I am confident, or at least hopeful, that in the end, he will leave the institution he now governs in better heart than he found it, and no less faithful to the Magisterium Pope John intended Vatican II to articulate and not to undermine (remember his opening words to the Council fathers? “The Councils—both the twenty ecumenical ones and the numberless others … all prove clearly the vigor of the Catholic Church and are recorded as shining lights in her annals.”

Pope John’s intentions were willfully betrayed: and I have no doubt that attempts will be made to betray those of Pope Francis, too. These are uncertain times. But I agree with Fr Z’s analysis, that Pope Francis is himself endorsing, even embodying, Pope Benedict’s ideas on the hermeneutic of continuity.

I mentioned an exception to my declaration that I do not intend in this post to criticize Pope Francis: it is this. That by refusing to move into the papal apartments, and by all the other ways in which he rejects what his predecessors did (including the red shoes and the scarlet velvet mozzetta) he SEEMS to be (though of course he is not) indicating a superior humility to that of his more lofty predecessors: in particular, the media seem to think that he is obviously more humble, more identified with the poor and marginalized, than reactionary pope Benedict—who in fact simply attempted to convey the lofty character not of himself but of his sacred office, by dressing and behaving according to papal custom.

Pope John, after all, was crowned with the papal tiara, and allowed himself to be carried aloft on a sedia gestatoria. Does anyone really think—has anyone ever remotely suggested—that that meant that he wasn’t after all a humble and holy father of all Catholics, a true Vicar of Christ? In the early days, Fr Z (like I and many others did) still lived in hopes that the present pope would dress and ceremoniously comport himself as popes have always done. On the day of his inauguration mass, Fr Z wrote this:

Tomorrow the Pope has an audience with delegations of Christian “churches”. Were the Pope to put on the mozzetta, that would be a good occasion. That would be the apt thing to do. It would be a sign of respect. The Pope will also soon have an audience with the diplomatic corps. The Pope, a head of state, should dress his part. The rest of the diplomats will.

This leads to “the point,” in case some of the enthusiasts run to the combox having missed it.

Remember, a mozzetta, in itself, is nothing. Popes don’t have to wear a mozzetta all the time. There are, however, occasions in which such trappings and signs of office, solemn and traditional, have their proper place. They send signals. The non-use of these symbols also sends signals.

People who say that these things are not important, or are bad, or that they should be eliminated are just plain wrong. That is a naive, shallow, approach to who we are. Catholics are not “either/or” when it comes to the dynamic interplay of the humble and the lofty. We are “both/and,” in proper measure, time and place.

I agree with all of that. And I end with one or two simple questions. Firstly, does anyone seriously think, because he wore the scarlet mozzetta and red shoes, and went to his duties driven in a white Merc (by a driver who wept at his final departure) that Pope Benedict was NOT the profoundly humble and holy man he clearly was?

My final questions are these: does Pope Francis’s abolition of what Fr Z calls the “trappings and signs of office, solemn and traditional” not carry a certain danger: that of making his own papacy appear to be a projection of his own engaging personality and of the ways of doing things that he personally finds come naturally to him?

And when all that is snuffed out by death, is there not the danger that what he will leave behind him will be for a time a simple vacuum, rather than a sede vacante capable of being occupied within a reasonably short time?

Editor’s note: This column first appeared April 11, 2014 in the Catholic Herald and is reprinted with permission. Pictured above is Pope Benedict in his red papal shoes. (Photo credit: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...