THE BLOG
11/16/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Pope Francis Tells the Church to Hit the Showers: What This Project Tells Us.

When you walk through the Vatican Museums, one of the things that you likely won't notice on the way to the Sistine Chapel is a wall made of windows and large doors tucked behind a gift shop that have the seal of Pope Benedict XVI above them. These doors lead to the Vatican Library, which was restored under the reign of Pope Benedict. It is not surprising that one of the best theological scholars of the twentieth and twenty first centuries would have restored the libraries of the Vatican. On the front of St. Peter's you see the name of Paul V, and his family name Borghese, denoting that he is the Pope who completed that grand façade. Alexander VII's name marks the colonnade of St. Peter's Square. Julius II, who thought himself a second Caesar intent on restoring the glory of classical culture, has his name all over the walls where Raphael painted the Academy at Athens. Many popes over the years have literally left their mark on Rome, and often times these marks show us what was important to them during their papacies. From the monumental fountains intended to be sources of fresh water for the city's poor, like the Trevi which was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, to the name of the Sistine Chapel itself (named for Pope Sixtus IV), the names of the Popes on things about Rome tell us something about who they were and what they cared about.

Now we have the first real building work of Pope Francis, neither grand in scope nor monumental in its beauty. It is a project which tells us so much, however, about who Francis is and why, despite the objections of some in the past weeks, he is deftly guiding the barque of St. Peter knowing both full well where it is going and where it has been. When an Italian newspaper released the news that the Pope, through his almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, had commissioned the building of showers for the homeless inside one the arms that extends from St. Peter's Basilica, which in Bernini's original architectural concept were intended to portray the arms of the Church embracing those who enter the square, we learned more about Francis than is immediately apparent. It tells us at least three things:

First it tells us that Francis is a Pope who listens. The story is that the showers are the result of the Papal Almoner, the man responsible for helping the poor on behalf of the Pope, having a conversation in which he invited a homeless man to lunch. The man, ashamed because he smelled bad, refused the invitation for want of a shower. Francis has not simply gone ahead with grand projects for the poor without first finding out what their needs are. Building shelters and soup kitchens, for example, might seem to be the immediate reaction that one would have to the problem of homelessness. These are, however, things which abound in a city filled with churches, religious orders, and famously committed lay communities like San Egidio. Francis sent his almoner out to listen to the needs of the poor and the result was that, as one man reported to the press, there is always the possibility of food and shelter, but a shower was what they really needed. Francis listens before responding, and the building of showers rather than another soup-kitchen demonstrates the wisdom of that approach. This is an approach which he seems to be applying more broadly and to more universally pressing issues, listening before acting. It has proven unnerving to those who take listening and discerning for indecision, but it proves to produce wiser solutions in the end, both for the poor around St. Peter's and likely for broader issues like Church's approach to divorce and homosexuality as well.

Secondly, it shows us the Francis is a man who is firmly rooted the history of the Church and that he carries on in a great continuity of those who have come before him. Contrary to the a certain current narrative of Francis as a split from those who have come before him, we see a pope who, like many before him, has engaged in a work for the good of the poor of Rome. It was the popes who restored and kept the fountains of Rome running as a source of clean water for the poor, it was the early church that established the Diakonia in ancient Rome to feed widows and orphans, and it was once a great tradition of the Church that the St. Peter's Basilica, as was true with all of the basilicas, served as a place for welcoming the poor, just as it now will once again. Far from being a break with the tradition of the Church, Francis installing the showers shows us a Pope who is clearly in line with the history of the Church over the ages. He is a man who remembers the best of what we once were, and wishes for us to be it again. What we have here, simply put, is continuity within the papacy down through the centuries.

Finally, the broad freedom that Pope Francis has given Archbishop Krajewski shows just what kind of manager he is. Far from some of the critiques that have come forth about Francis being a micro-manager, he has given his almoner broad freedom to listen, to act, and to stand with the poor where they need it the most. Stories abound of the almoner taking the poor to lunch, giving international phone cards to refugees so that they can call home, and going out at night to meet them under the colonnades of St. Peter's. He moves about the city both with great freedom and with a broad mandate from Francis. Francis chose him because he knew that he already had a talent for this work. Like any good manager, having chosen a talented person for a difficult job, Francis has left Archbishop Krajewski to it and supported him in it. Pope Francis knows what he is doing, and knows how to manage the Church. While he is actively engaged in a way in in which we haven't seen in a long time in Rome, his track record on turning things around at the Vatican bank, by bringing in another talented manager in Cardinal Pell, proves that.

It may well be that they don't put Francis' seal above the entrance to the showers in the bathrooms on St. Peter's square. They will likely not include sculptures by Bernini, and the cost of the work will likely not equal the worth of one of the rare books in the Vatican's library. That's perfectly ok, because those showers have already signaled far more to us than simply putting his name or seal above them could have ever told us about the man.