PopeFrancisAltarServersThe luxury, pomp and circumstance are really just unnecessary. At least they are unnecessary, as best as I can tell, from God’s perspective.

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?

Photo: Wire


  1. Great, I don.t care if he wears sack-cloth and ashes because of the abuse[recommended] if he would just leave the women alone LCWR does not have any money or that much property so back of
    pat sieber ofm

  2. In another 10 years, we’ll have the hindsight to determine the significance of the events of February and March 2013 in the life of the Church.

    Could Francis’ actions be seen as logical next steps in how the papacy should evolve since the loss of the Papal States in the 1870s?

  3. I agree with Rich Andre in part. Pope Francis is not better than his predecessors. He’s being led to be more attuned with what the world needs from the Body of Christ in the 21st century. The world needed John XXIII when it needed him, John Paul II when it needed him, now it needs a Francis to set the stage for the coming times.

    In a time in which we glorify ourselves as God, we need a man who humbles himself as God did.

  4. As your blogs continue to acquaint us with the simple gestures of love and humility of our new pope, I am graced by both the reports of his actions in this forum as well as your enthusiastic responses, Fr. Dan (if I may use that familiarity). My husband and I moved from a wealthy suburban parish when the new pastor added an ornate “throne” for the celebrant, ordered new vestments with gold threading, etc, – to a Franciscan-run inner-city parish. What I see thus far in Pope Francis is the simplicity of love overflowing, unimpeded by ostentatious clothing and ritual. . . what we found at our new home in the “inner city”.
    The essential needs of our broken selves become the center of our Christian life and testimony, and my deepest longings for the love of our beloved Shepherd are stirred when I read of Pope Francis’ manner of leading us to that Good Shepherd.
    I can’t think of a time in history when we didn’t need love-in-simplicity-and-humility.

  5. Dan, thanks for sharing these thoughts on the gestures of Pope Francis who urged his brothers to preach by deeds not words. Those “sermons” are much more powerful. May we all follow his example as much as we are able in our own lives.

  6. Father Dan,
    Let me push back by asking a question–last week the Pope announced he fully supports the crackdown on US Nuns and their active social outreach programs. So which is more important–the Pope’s gestures of humility or his non-support of the nuns’ active preference for the poor? If I have this wrong please correct me.

    1. He did not negate their ‘outreach programs’ nor did the Bishop who investigated.What is terribly wrong is the good sisters denial of basic Catholic doctrine and speaking out in favour of women priests, homosexuality,etc.Big difference

    2. Father Dan, I also ask the same question as Mich. In my 70 years I have been more impacted positively in my faith by the Sisters than by anyone else except my mother. With no disrespect meant to you or to any other priest, but no priest has ever taught me anything that has been as long lasting, life-changing truths as the Sisters did in the 12 years I had them to set the foundation for a continuation of learning more about my faith.
      And those women did it all for the love of God. And by the way, my mother was a single mother of 4 who always needed the help of those women to keep her children in Catholic schools. They were taking care of the poor back in the 1950s just as they are doing today. Thank you Sisters, I will always be grateful.

  7. Thanks so much Mike. It is so encouraging to read this article.


    PS Did you hear anything that the Pope has said about the nuns?

    1. Maureen, I know you didn’t ask me but I have a few thoughts to share I had my doubts about the authenticity of what Pope Francis was said to have said about the LCWR. I read an article in the NCR today which added some additions information for those of us who think the Curia should be dealing with the abuse and not the LCWR. The introduction to the article is:

      “Don’t you find it odd that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is issuing press statements about what it says Pope Francis said to congregation prefect Archbishop Gerhard Müller? I mean, can you find another example of a Curia head touting papal support? Doesn’t Pope Francis seem to say what he wants to say without someone else saying it for him?”

      This is encouraging to me because I think this Pope can and will speak for himself. I am going to remain hopeful until I hear from him.

  8. The example of Pope Francis will stand the test of time. The Church will shed its medieval accoutrements and return to the simplicity of Jesus.

  9. Thank you for your most helpful observations, Fr. Dan.
    I, too, am a cynic at times. Not due to a lack of faith – just cautionary – because I have been disappointed and, yes, angered too many times by papal actions – and inactions. The bottom line for me will always be: do as Jesus showed us in simple yet dramatic examples.

    Franciscan beliefs and lived-out spirituality are very appealing to me because they are a true and uncomplicated way of life – if one has the courage to accept the tenets of their founder.

    One thing still troubles me about Pope Francis. That is the recurring reports of his actions during the ‘Argentinian war,’ specifically: (1) that he did not intervene on behalf of the campensinos, thousands of whom were murdered or disappeared.; and (2) the mystery behind some of his fellow Jesuits who were arrested and jailed during this time. This issue does not seem to go away. I’v e read enough of the media’s less-than -objective reports. It is time to hear from Pope Francis. It is a matter of record that he was opposed to Liberation Theology. Perhaps that has something to do with his inaction.

    I think that Catholics, especially, deserve an explanation of what happened during that time in Argentina’s history and the now-Pope Francis’ part in it.

    What he does in the future regarding other pressing matters that need to be addressed (women religious, married priests, women deacons, clergy sexual abuse (for all those working with children, including those in Catholic institutions).

    That’s a loaded menu to be sure, but I continue to have hope….

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