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Fr. Richard Rohr Headshot

Reflections on a New Face

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As a Franciscan, I was, of course, elated that one of the the first decisions of the new pope was to take a name that has not been taken by a pope before -- "Francisco" -- which in itself says an awful lot. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is surely the most wonderful example of a joyful "para-church" approach to church reform. He was never a company man. "Don't fight it directly," Francis modeled for us, "just do it very differently yourself." As we say at the Center for Action and Contemplation, "The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better." The Recovery people put it uniquely in their Twelve Traditions: "Grow more by attraction than self-promotion."

For Cardinal Bergoglio to identify himself so clearly with a reformer of Christian lifestyle, instead of a doctrinal apologist, is extremely telling and very hopeful. To quote Pope Paul VI, "The world will no longer believe teachers unless they are first of all witnesses." The simple details of his apartment, his use of mass transit, his visits to wash the feet of AIDS patients, his passion for the poor, cooking his own food, all tell us that this man is about lifestyle Christianity more than perpetual doctrinal food fights, which bear so little real fruit anyway.

Let's look at his non-verbals in the first hours of his papacy, which experts believe are much more truthful than language, anyway. All of Pope Francis' early actions tell me that this man is first of all a man who knows who he is, before he is a churchman, a man fulfilling a role, a celebrity or a man taking an office. Here are some of Pope Francis' early non-verbal give-aways:

  • According to insiders, he did not ascend the throne to greet the new cardinals who elected him, but stayed at their ground level. This made bowing, groveling and ring kissing very difficult. His self image is grounded, if this is true.
  • He wore simple white in his first presentation of himself to the world, without a golden cross, red cape or priestly stole. In fact, he wore a plain wooden cross. He accepted the stole for the official blessing, but then, with a reverent kiss, immediately took it off for his personal "good night" to the people. (Any priest knows that this is a calculated decision.) I am told that he is still wearing his ordinary black shoes, having eschewed the three sizes of Prada red that had been crafted to fit any possible papal shoe size.
  • He immediately called the people "brother and sister," and stood before them without the smiles or exaggerated hand waving of a celebrity. Rather, he presented himself in an almost "Ecce Homo" (John 19:5) way: "Here I am, as I am," it shouted to the world. Not much ego inflation for someone in his first moments of international exposure.
  • The fact that almost every account of him uses the word "humility" or "humble" to describe him, is indicative of how we pick up people's actual energy much more than their words, clothes or precise actions. It might also reveal how we have not come to expect this from those who hold the papal office. Apparently, most were surprised, and also drawn to, this ordinariness and accessibility. I believe I would go to him for confession.
  • We hear that the next morning he returned to the hotel where he stayed the previous night to pick up his own luggage and pay his own bill! I wonder how he got away with it. Only by insisting, I would think. This sounds like one who "came to serve and not to be served" (Mark 10:45).
  • Perhaps most striking to any Catholic who has received many magnanimous blessings from priests and prelates, we have a pope first asking the people to bless him -- and bowing down before them to receive it! He had just asked for a moment of silence, which stunned the crowd into exactly that. Those of us who teach contemplative prayer were given hope that our church might move beyond its largely exclusive use of memorized and recited prayers in public. But even there, he recited the three memorized prayers that every Catholic child first learns: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Doxology to the Trinity (also called the Glory Be). He might just know how to do things "both ways," which is the only way he can be a pontifex, a "bridge builder."

I am sure there will be things we disagree with in this papacy. I have had personal contact with the former Jesuit, now living in Germany, whom he apparently "persecuted." His quoted statements on gay adoption sound highly uninformed and fear-based. But my hope is that his love for the poor and the excluded will win out; now he has no higher-ups to please or placate. Let's hope and pray that this will allow Pope Francis to be a man of the Gospel more than a mere churchman. Then the world will be forever grateful, and grace will flow more freely in what has been a dry stream for some time.