The pope will go to jail this week. In the spirit of Pope John XXIII who, when he visited Rome's Regina Coeli prison in 1958, said to the inmates, "You could not come to me, so I came to you," Pope Francis will go to the juvenile detainees of Casal del Marmo who cannot come to him. He will celebrate Holy Thursday Mass with them and wash and kiss their feet as a sign of Christ-like loving service. Choosing to eschew the ecclesiastical splendor of Saint Peter's Basilica, where he was scheduled to preside at the initial service of the most solemn days of the Christian calendar, Pope Francis has chosen instead to pray among the incarcerated -- fitting for a man whose patron, Saint Francis, was imprisoned for a year as a young man and had asked to be buried in the cemetery of criminals at Colle d'Inferno ("Hill of Hell").
With his action of re-locating Holy Thursday mass to a prison and of others he has taken such as: riding the bus instead of a private limousine, carrying his own bags, canceling his own Buenos Aires newspaper subscription, pressing the flesh after Sunday Mass in Rome like any ordinary parish priest, and choosing Saint Martha's as his domicile instead of the Apostolic Palace, in just a few weeks Pope Francis has dramatically begun to transform the image of the papacy. Papal designations of "servant" and "shepherd" have emerged from the ecclesiastical incense haze of pomp, circumstance and ermine finery. In sweeping aside some of the trappings of papal privilege, Pope Francis has shone a laser light on the Gospel mandate of preferential option for the poor and marginalized.
Some have expressed hope that, in the spirit of Saint Francis, Pope Francis will initiate a "rebuilding" of a Church that has fallen into disrepair and dysfunction due to scandal, mismanagement and a seeming disconnect from its founding mission; others wonder if these first weeks of his papacy are an indication that Pope Francis will also champion the cause of those incarcerated in metaphorical prisons no less confining than the one at which he will wash feet in Rome.
In the days since white smoke billowed forth from the Sistine Chapel chimney and this unexpected Argentinian stepped onto the balcony of Saint Peter's and asked for our prayers, speculation in the United States about the future direction of the Church has centered predominantly on the controversial issues of priestly celibacy, gay rights, women priests, birth control and the sex abuse scandal. While many acknowledge that immediate sweeping changes in the tradition and doctrine of the Church may be too much to expect of a 76-year-old pope who was known to be theologically conservative in his native Argentina, there are some hopeful indications that Pope Francis may shift the tone in the Vatican enough so that some who have felt alienated or imprisoned by the above issues might be encouraged to give the Church a second look.
In a 2010 Bishops' meeting in Argentina Pope Francis allegedly proposed that the Church in Argentina support same-sex unions as a compromise to same-sex marriage. While reportedly his purpose in doing so was to defeat the impending same-sex marriage law, Marcelo Marquez, a former theology professor at a Catholic seminary in Argentina, is quoted as saying that Cardinal Bergoglio called him on the phone afterwards and said, "I'm in favor of gay rights and in any case, I also favor civil unions for homosexuals, but I believe that Argentina is not yet ready for a gay marriage law." If true, those words represent a sea change from previous official Church statements on the topic.
In a 2012 book by Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, then Cardinal Bergoglio is quoted as saying of priestly celibacy, "It's a matter of discipline, not of faith. It can change." While Cardinal Bergoglio goes on to say, "For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy, with all it's pros and cons...," the words "it can change" and "for the moment" resound loudly in a Church not used to hearing them.
In that same book Cardinal Bergoglio is quoted as supporting zero tolerance for sex abusers. Of the sex abuse crisis in the U.S. he says, "That solution was proposed once in the United States...switching the priests to a different parish. It is a stupid idea...Pedophilia has to be cut off at the roots. It's very serious." For those who have demanded more decisive action from the top on this issue, those words may instill hope that under the leadership of Pope Francis the Church may yet free itself from the dark morass of it's egregious oversights and poor judgements in this area.
While some are taking a wait and see attitude before giving way to optimism about the prospects for change, remarkably, even one of Pope Francis's most vocal critics, Hebe de Bonafini, leader of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in a just released letter to him writes, "I am surprised to hear many of your colleagues talking about your efforts and your work in the villas. I am overjoyed about this and feel I can hope for change in the Vatican." Although still not a glowing endorsement, this is from a woman whose initial steeped in irony reaction to the election of Pope Francis was, "About this Pope they have named, we have only to say, 'Amen.' "
Recent polls suggest that the majority of Catholics in the United States are also hoping for change, but polls also say that 94 percent (Reuters/Ipsos) of them have an initial favorable view of Pope Francis. Undoubtedly, when he kneels before juvenile detainees to wash and kiss their feet in a Rome prison this Holy Thursday, some will see it as a sign that important change has indeed already come to the Vatican. The Pope will have left the marble sanctuary of Saint Peter's and gone behind bars to those who could not come to him. Such simple actions and pitch-perfect tone can communicate more than the most finely crafted encyclicals and papal pronouncements.
Saint Francis is reported to have famously said, "Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words." His namesake's Holy Thursday homily can be short and sweet, for his actions have already spoken volumes.