The Symbolism that is Reflected in Pope Francis’ Behaviours and Actions
One Thursday in March 2013 an almost unknown cardinal from Argentina stepped out onto the balcony above St Peter's square and said ‘Buenos Serra’ and went on to say that the Cardinals have gone to the ends of the earth to find a new pope.
He took the name Francis, the humble saint of Assisi. He knelt and asked those gathered to pray for him before giving them his blessing. Later in an interview this sense of humility was again emphasised when asked who he was, he said, ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner’.
Rather than live in the Papal apartments, he chose to live in the much more humble Casa Santa Marta.
There are many pictures of Pope Francis engaging with people, young and not so young, in ways that we don’t usually associate with the Pope. For example, we saw how he related to the young boy who wandered onto the altar while he was celebrating mass. And then there was the picture of him placing the beach ball on the Our Lady’s altar on his return from World Youth Day in Rio.
So from the word go the new pope was displaying an informality that was unusual to say the least. It was also attractive in that it portrayed a willingness to reach out and an ease with people. He was also displaying a sense of humour.
So what, if anything, was going to be different?
Has anything become different? Well something has for sure. Never before has a pope had such widespread, almost exclusively positive, coverage in the media, and not just the Catholic media but the secular media also. Time Magazine, Fortune Magazine 'World's greatest leader' (March 2014)
In Veritas we are aware that there is a really high level of interest in everything the new pope does and says. Why would a papal document, an Apostolic Exhortation, sell over 12,000 copies in Ireland. Such a publication would normally sell about 1,500 copies or if there was reason for additional interest maybe up to 3,000 copies in its entire life time? However Evangelli Gaudium has been listed in the Irish Times best selling list, which is published in the paper each Saturday, several times since its publication last December.
So the question is whether anything has in fact changed and if it has, if the change is merely cosmetic or is it substantial, whether it has any substance or is merely a sort of PR exercise or a trick to get media coverage? I want to propose that the change is in fact substantial and will have far reaching effects.
If someone had wondered in the past what does the pope stands for, or what is the church all about you would probably have got an answer that would tell you what the pope and the church are against: so there would be a mention of same sex marriage, abortion, birth control, ordination of women, and you might hear about the sacraments etc etc You would have heard about the horrendous scandal of clerical sexual abuse. What might you hear now? Well the likelihood is that you'd hear 'the pope is humble, the pope is compassionate, the pope is especially concerned with the poor’. While Francis has given no sense that he’s going to change the Church’s teaching on any of these issues, he has certainly changed the emphasis.
Francis talks about how the proclamation of the gospel must first of all provoke fascination and attraction and make hearts burn, rather than becoming ‘obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently’.— he’s saying that unless we first proclaim the saving love and mercy of God and help people become convinced of that, none of these other teachings can be properly heard at all.
‘Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists¬—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies’.
But neither does he say that everything is ‘up in the air’ he’s clear that he is rooted deeply in the beliefs of the Catholic Church. He has called himself a ‘Son of the Church’.
He says, ‘I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life’. (interview)
So in the past the image of God that was being presented was that of a God who judges and controls. That is not the kind of God that will inspire people that’s not the God for whom people are thirsting. And neither was that the kind of God about whom people flocked to hear Jesus of Nazareth speak. At the time of Jesus people were being told all about a God who judged while they longed for a God who cared…… as do people today.
If you begin with dogmas or teachings or proclamations you can always argue one way or the other. Is birth control wrong? Should there be women priests? Should divorced people be allowed to receive Holy Communion? You can argue one way or the other.
Pope Francis himself begins elsewhere, with images and symbols. You can’t argue with an image or a symbol. You can’t argue with an image of a man with a lamb on his shoulders.
He also speaks through actions.
He says that our faith must create a ‘culture of encounter’. ‘Encounter’ is something he does all the time. We have seen pictures of him visiting migrants on the Island of Lampadusa, caressing the face of a profoundly disfigured man, and connecting with people in a variety of situations.
For Pope Francis, it becomes obvious that his actions match the words.
At the heart of Catholicism is the belief that words and gestures can be sacramental and so transformative. They are deeply symbolic. Pope John Paul 11 had something of a similar way with gestures, eg praying at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, kissing the ground when he alighted form a plane in a new country. But he was into the ‘great’ public gestures. While Pope Francis sees everyday opportunities and takes them up all the time.
What does he say about the kind of church that he wants:
In Evangelli Gaudium, he urges the church to leave the centre and 'Go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach the peripheries'. And again, 'The joy of the Gospel is for all people no one can be excluded'. He speaks about the priest as someone who has smelt the ‘smell of the sheep’.
‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out in the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned that ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures'.
Again he says, ‘A Church closed in on herself is the same, a sick Church’.
Where does he see holiness?
‘I see holiness in a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity’.
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds… Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.
But he doesn’t define what that church which he wants is or exactly how it can be brought about. He does say that the emphasis should be on initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. (EV)
‘I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel.’
He speaks of a church that speaks to the people as a mother speaks to her child. He says this language is ‘a kind of music which inspires encouragement, strength and enthusiasm.
His emphasis is on the nature of the church rather than its structure. He says,
‘ The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude’
‘Being guided by the Holy Spirit renouncing the attempt to control; everything to the last detail’
Francis says that the first reform must be about attitude and this he makes clear in certain things he says, for instance about the Eucharist:
‘The Eucharist although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. The Church is the house of the Father where there is room for everyone with all their problems.’ (EV 47)
And also on the issue of women in the church:
‘Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. ….. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. …….The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.
He is beginning to shape a future which is as yet beyond our understanding and beyond his understanding. But from what he says about the church and how it should function one can believe that this is how Francis would want it to be.
The willingness to risk the false ‘security’ of having everything already settled has clearly been a recurring theme in the first months of Francis’ papacy. Rather, he’s pointing out that a mature, firm, and confident faith doesn’t hide in self-certainty.
"All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief," Francis said. "When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit."
So what I’m proposing is that Pope Francis is about significant change. He’s not putting a shape on that at the moment because he doesn’t know exactly what it will entail which is in line with the philosophy of church he has been promoting since his election.
For this group it is interesting to see the emphasis Pope Francis is putting on a number of the issues that are at the heart of the Vision of MIA. Mary will address this in much more depth in her input. I would just like to point out that often people like us see ourselves as doing what we do without any sense that the values and vision we work from are mirrored in the institutional church. Now I think we can say that they are.
About human trafficking Pope Francis says:
Trade in people ‘is a vile activity, a disgrace to our societies that claim to be civilized! Exploiters and clients at all levels should make a serious examination of conscience both in the first person and before God!’ (5/24/13)
About global poverty he says:
Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold but theirs. EV57
And about Mercy:
A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just.
Messages to: Maura Hyland - MIA Board Director
Image: Pope Francis in March 2013 © presidencia.gov.ar.
Used under CC 2.0