When we get all dressed up in expensive vestments, use exorbitant vessels, and insist on extra rubrical rituals that distance ourselves from one another for the sake of “solemnity,” are we really honoring God or just honoring ourselves? This is the question I keep coming back to as I see what Pope Francis has been up to on a daily basis. Cynics have told me — and, trust me, I have my own cynical side — that these little actions and gestures are simply unimportant. “Just wait,” they say, “nothing will really change!” But life is not usually made up of dramatic episodes of ecumenical-council calling or pontifical retirement — such things happen once. A pontificate, a life, a legacy, and leadership are all usually defined by a series of small, everyday, ordinary modes of being.
I have to confess that I have found Pope Francis’s little actions and modes of being to be quite telling in recent weeks. Just this past week a Vatican news service photo was published of the Holy Father having his hands washed (lavabo) during mass by two young unvested — meaning the boys weren’t wearing albs or cassocks and surplices — altar servers. I’m not sure what it is about this photograph, but I have found it to be incredibly moving. That these are kids like one might encounter at your parish on any given Sunday or weekday liturgy, kids who probably came to mass with their parents and, if the presider isn’t a jerk, kids who the presider might invite to “help out” and have a special role as servers.
What is so striking about this image is that, traditionally, one hasn’t seen a photograph of the pope celebrating mass without grown men all decked out with the finest of Italian vestments. Usually one recalls seminarians from one of the many Roman seminaries serving the pope at the liturgy in cassock, surplice, and collar.
But time and again Pope Francis has ostensibly eschewed anything that appears ostentatious, choosing — in something of a analogous ‘Ockham’s Razor’ (Ockham was a Franciscan friar, BTW) — the simplest and least pretentious option.
We saw this from the moment he stepped out on the balcony the evening of his election as Bishop of Rome. We saw this that first sunday when he defied the protocol that called for scurrying him away right after Mass and instead shaking the hands of and talking to the people. We saw this in his sitting with the assembly in quiet prayer before daily liturgy. We saw this in his decision to preach from the Ambo like an ordinary priest and pastor, not choosing to sit down in the episcopal grandeur of preaching ex cathedra. We saw this in his choice to wash the feet of women and non-Christians. We saw that in his choice to form a diverse and international group of close advisors, apparently willing to share decision-making and seek advice. We saw this in the recent reports suggesting that he desires to have women play more of a role in the church’s leadership. We see this time and time again.
I anticipate that some will read my comments here and accuse me of elevating Pope Francis’s style over against that of his predecessors, as if to make a political statement about how one is “better than” an another. Fine. I think I’m willing to stake that claim. As time goes on, Pope Francis is — as his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, said — “preaching by his deeds” and my reflection on those behavioral homilies is that the luxury, pomp and circumstance of ages (even recent ages) past went uncritically examined, I think their absence reflects a positive and visible sign of where the church should be rather than where it is in the projection of one’s own potential self-aggrandizement onto God’s will.
God doesn’t need the fancy things or the solemn distance, God needs us to follow God’s example in Jesus Christ, who was poor, humble, and never let anything — anything — get in the way of encountering all people: sinners, outcasts, the marginalized, the untouchables, and so on.
For those who will get all worked up about this changes, the question I ask you is this: Is this a concern about honoring God or is this a concern about no longer having the cover to honor yourself?