Since he assumed the Great Mantle in March, much has been written about the simplicity and humility of Pope Francis. Francis has abandoned many of the external trappings that accompanied the papacy in recent times – red shoes, Mercedes Benz, gold pectoral cross, ermine mozzetta, residence in the apostolic palace – in favor of more ordinary options. And now he’s announced a coming encyclical on voluntary poverty in the Church.
Some have judged the pope’s actions to represent a new type of thinking and operating inside the world’s oldest monarchy, a shift from the regality of princes to the simplicity of the people. Others have expressed their discomfort with the new pontiff’s seemingly quick departure from practices centuries old. Not surprisingly, both reactions reflect broader visions of Catholicism and the Church.
But contrary to news reports, Francis is not the first of recent popes to start down this path. What exactly is new in what he is doing – and what message is he trying to convey – in deliberately choosing the simple over the ornate? Answers to these questions lie not in contemporary ecclesial politics, but in the Gospel and in recent papal history, which is mostly in continuity with the present.
The papacy is indeed a monarchy that directs Catholics to their spiritual end: union with God forever. From the late Roman Empire through the nineteenth century, it was also very much a temporal monarchy ruling over a large territory, the Papal States, in central Italy. The temporal authority was seen as necessary to guarantee the papacy’s independence and – more important – his spiritual authority. Hence popes adopted the trappings of European monarchs, though some of these externals also took on religious import because of the dual nature of the papal office.
In 1870 the Papal States were lost to the newly unified Kingdom of Italy. In hindsight, this has been a great gain for the Church: no longer was the pope a temporal ruler in a particular locale, but a spiritual and moral force who spoke to all peoples of the earth. Yet external trappings of the papacy, including the kissing of the pope’s slipper and the wearing of the triple tiara, remained well into the twentieth century.
Two factors combined to cause reconsideration – and ultimately, the pruning – of the associated regal forms. First, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed the “universal call to holiness” and a refocus on the Gospel, which was to be preached in a manner that fit the times. Second, in almost every nation during the 1960s, attitudes were shifting quickly and dramatically toward democratic egalitarianism and cultural informality. The ceremonial practices that honored the papacy not only ceased to be understood, but were viewed as inappropriate for such a Christian office.
Habit of simplicity: then Cardinal Bergoglio rides the Buenos Aires subway
Acknowledging both of these factors, Paul VI gradually began to orient the papacy in a different direction. He donated papal jewels, shrunk the papal court, abolished both the slipper kiss and the papal Noble Guard. Most notably, he abandoned the triple tiara, which was a symbol of the pope’s prestige as a ruler. Further, Paul fervently advocated the preaching of the Gospel with missionary zeal.
John Paul II continued this trend with small signs, including eschewing the red papal shoes and the royal “we.” Benedict XVI did don the red shoes and use the royal “we” on occasion, and he also wore stately raiment when giving speeches (the use of finery for liturgy pertains to the worship of God and not the papal office itself, which excludes it from consideration here). But he also abolished the custom of kissing the pope’s hand (although Peter Seewald acknowledged that this rule was ignored), and he removed the tiara from the papal coat of arms, replacing it with a bishop’s miter to underscore the spiritual, rather than temporal, mission of the pope.
This leads us to Francis, who has clearly brought his own personal style of simplicity to the exercise of the papal office. Cultural trends have also influenced Francis’ actions, but with a twist: rather than be influenced by the culture, Francis is asserting the primacy of the Gospel over culture, including the culture within the Vatican, which often raises worldliness and careerism over life in the spirit.
In his ministry, Francis seems willing to push aside any papal formality that he perceives as a potential impediment to evangelization. Recently, he telephoned an Italian teenager and asked that the young man address him with the informal “tu” because that is how the apostles spoke to Jesus. Francis is fully aware of the dignity of his office, but he is also reminding us that he is our spiritual brother and fellow pilgrim on the way to God.
Papal ceremonials in themselves are objectively neutral. They have come and gone with the centuries, some benefiting the pope’s office, others hindering, and still others doing well or poorly in different ages. The value of all papal regalia, just like the papacy itself, must be appraised in light of their service to Christ and his Gospel.
Francis’ first months have been full of surprises, including his pruning of papal accoutrements. Some like it, others don’t. We are free to judge these decisions, but we must do so not based on our personal preferences, but on how well they help communicate the saving message of the Gospel.