Pope Francis, the ‘humble pope’?

Is Pope Francis bringing the mystical office—seen as a living symbol of God’s stewardship of the world—too far down to earth?

By now you’ve heard the story: Simple living, highly educated Jesuit priest-turned-archbishop-turned-pope rocks the Vatican with a modest lifestyle and frank tone seen as a radical departure from the practices of previous pontiffs.

He’s the pope who church watchers say hasn’t mentioned abortion or gay marriage in his first 120 days.

The pope who named himself after the radical mystic St. Francis of Assisi in order to remember the poor.

The pope who said nice things about atheists.

The pope whom many already see as the best hope to re-energize a fading Catholic Church in the West.

The new pope’s influence has been dubbed the “Francis effect”; he’s been compared to Princess Diana and called “the people’s pope.” Early polls indicate that Francis is unusually popular, and in the months since his election, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be found buzzing about his latest sermon or act of humility. Did you hear, the pope isn’t living in the papal apartment? Did you see, Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill after becoming the leader of the Catholic Church? Did you notice, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics carried his own bag onto the plane for his trip to World Youth Day?

The positive press surely is a welcome change for an institution plagued by more than 10 years of bad news and negative press over its handling of a global sexual-abuse scandal. But what’s behind such a flood of interest in an office often criticized as out of touch and struggling for influence even over its own flock?

“It’s not so much that the Vatican’s out of touch. In a way, its supposed to be out of touch,” said the Rev. Gilbert Martinez, pastor of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. “It’s that it seems as if Pope Francis has touched the nerve of what the church is really about. In spite of these scandals and everything that’s gone on we know that the core of the church is love and joy and service. “

Martinez, whose urban church counts a large population of young adults, including a popular gay ministry, says that Francis’ impact on the faithful and non-Catholics alike is astounding to him: “This is the first time that I can recall ever talking to people almost on a weekly basis about papal homilies.”

By using “very accessible” language and symbolic acts of service like a Holy Thursday foot washing in an Italian youth prison, Martinez says, Francis is reaching “people on the margins.” And that includes people outside the church who may have been skeptical of anything the church teaches.

“A couple of days ago, in a restaurant, a young gay guy came up to me and he said, ‘Father I used to be Catholic and I think the pope is awesome! I’m not going back to church but I think the pope is awesome.’”

“I don’t think [Francis] is going to make any major changes in our teachings,” Martinez adds. Instead, “he’s going to really focus on living simply and a life of poverty so he can draw people to the message.”

But other Catholics are asking, by emphasizing the image of the simple pope, is Francis bringing the mystical office — seen as a living symbol of God’s stewardship of the world — too far down to earth? And is calling Francis the “humble pope” implying that other popes — particularly Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI — were not humble?

Speaking to National Catholic Report’s John Allen, Jr., from Rio De Janeiro, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said this week that the right wing of the church has been “generally not happy” with Francis. And that’s been evident in a handful of blog posts by influential Catholics asking questions of Francis’ commitment to traditional church practices like more elaborate Masses, for example, or washing only men’s feet during Holy Week services.

In a post titled “Pope Francis’ Preference for Simplicity Leaves Much To Be Spiritually Desired…” blogger Katrina Fernandez recently wrote of Francis’ disinterest in the finery and pomp associated with his office: “It’s just so hard to warm up to someone who feels the things you find important and meaningful to be trivial frivolities.”

Indeed, it was the richness of the church’s liturgical and spiritual traditions that led Timothy Putnam to convert to Catholicism during Benedict’s papacy.

Putnam had been a United Methodist worship pastor for 10 years when he converted — after what he describes as a “realization that the faith that I was raised with was most present in the Catholic Church.” He and his wife were drawn not to “happy clappy” Catholicism, but to the traditions of the church that pre-date Vatican II.

His family, which includes four children under the age of six, attends services at a Catholic parish that hosts Latin Masses, utilizes communion rails and where many women wear head coverings during Mass, all of which are rare in mainstream American Catholicism today. He is now director of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Tulsa.

Putnam’s affinity for church traditions, he says, is “a connection to the broader church not only around the world but also in time that we have this connection that we’re doing the same things that have been done through the centuries.”

“I was very, very fond of [Pope] Benedict,” Putnam says. He was my pope. He was the one I came into the church under. And he was very much a scholar, a very deep thinker. You had to read over the things he said three or four or five times to make sure you really knew what he was saying. Coming from an academic background I liked that very much.”

Where the hesitation around Pope Francis stems from, Putnam says, is a perception that by praising Francis’ simple style, people are “pit[ing] him against his predecessor.” Noting that in the transition from Benedict to Francis, Catholics have “gone from something that was a very liturgically conservative style to one that is quite a bit less rigid,” Putnam nonetheless adds that “this pope is focusing on something different and something that just as much needs to be addressed,” namely “not being stuck inside the walls of the church.”

“What I’ve experienced with people who I know who are very traditional is a love for Pope Francis. I haven’t seen too many people who don’t have respect for him. I know that they’re out there because I hear of them through articles and blogs. I hear that they’re out there. That they’re nervous, that they’re stirring.”

On Thursday, the head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, addressed the Benedict-Francis comparisons head on, when he said in an interview with NCR’s Allen that the negative implication of all the praise for Francis bothers him.

“It’s as if Benedict is being caricatured as this more regal, monarchical kind of pope,” Dolan said. It’s the same with the business about Francis not going to the ‘palatial’ summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, which is actually fairly simple, too. All these comparisons bother me, both because I think they’re probably hurtful to Benedict, and I also think they’re not accurate.”

Blogger Fernandez summed up the sentiment around the Francis-Benedict contrast when, referring to the former pontiff, she wrote recently, “The humblest thing I ever saw a pope do was to abdicate the papacy.”

Still, the Pope Francis frenzy is undoubtedly causing many Catholics across the ideological spectrum to engage with their faith in a new way.

Says Putnam: “We have a fantastic opportunity to explain the Catholic Church to people who normally aren’t asking.”

“This is our opportunity to let people know what the Catholic Church actually is because they’re asking,” he notes. “For me, this was me eight or nine years ago when Benedict came in [as pope] so I know about making the most of these opportunities.”

Image courtesy of Semilla Luz.

About

Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
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