Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he arrives at St. Peter’s Square on June 16, 2013. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)
In Brazil, Pope Francis has given us a glimpse into Catholicism’s future.
Most of the media coverage has focused on the outlines of the pope’s daily schedule, along with rather evocative vignettes such as the Popemobile taking a wrong turn and being mobbed by adoring pilgrims. The media have also taken note of the vast crowds greeting the pope as well as his visit to one of Rio de Janeiro’s largest slums and his continuing calls for a “church of the poor.”
But for me, it has been the seeming small gestures that point to the largest messages about what Pope Francis hopes Catholicism can reclaim about itself and carry into the future.
I was particularly struck by the pope’s brief meeting with Oscar Schmidt during the ceremony in which Catholicism’s first Latin American Pope was presented the key to the city. Oscar Schmidt was known as “m o santa,” the “hand of God” or “the holy hand,” in recognition of his phenomenal scoring abilities on the court. Now stricken with brain cancer, the basketball hero knelt before the pope when they met. There was no kissing of the papal ring—at least as far as I could see. Instead, the pope clasped Oscar Schmidt’s hand and then placed his other hand on Oscar Schmidt’s head in blessing.
The laying on of hands is an ancient Christian gesture. It has tremendous importance in Catholic sacraments, such as holy orders and extreme unction. But it is now associated with Pentecostal religiosity, which has been on the rise in Brazil over the last decade. The Catholic response to Pentecostalism has often been either dismissive or defensive—John Paul II famously decried the popularity of “sects” during one of his visits to Latin America. In one sense, the pope was reclaiming a time-honored pastoral tradition. But in another sense, he was expressing himself in a religious vernacular that special relevance in contemporary Brazilian culture.
But seen beyond Brazil and the Catholic south, the Pope’s gesture might be seen against a different kind of background. I was going to entitle this blog entry as “Catholicism that touches” and discuss how Catholicism all too often fails to touch people in the United States and Europe. But I immediately realized that any word play around Catholicism and “touching” would probably start a cascade of nasty postings. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the relationship between laity and their priests has been seriously damaged in the Western world—so much so that much of the interaction is structured and supervised in ways that can prevent spontaneous acts of pastoral caring. Through many of his seemingly simple gestures as “the world’s parish priest,” Pope Francis is calling for a renewed space for interpersonal connection and solidarity.
That was also the case during the pope’s visit to the Varginha favela. Press reports emphasized how the pope seemed to scold Brazil’s leaders and those of us who are materially comfortable and affluent. But one of the most striking things that the Pope said was actually quite simple, that he wished he go to each and every Brazilian home “to ask for a glass of cold water, to take a cafezinho “ For comparison, one might think of earnest activists who raise money for development work in slums but would surely bring their own bottled water if they ever set foot in a place like the Varginha favela.
At Copacabana beach, Pope Francis spoke of overcoming apathy with dialogue and service. In his other homilies, he has called for hope and openness. He told the young, who are understandably frustrated by the corruption they see and experience, to remember that people can change. The openness that Pope Francis envisions is openness to God’s grace and mercy—a grace and mercy that can transform our lives and our relationships with each other.
But it is the hierarchy of the Catholic of the Catholic church that is in most need of grace and mercy. Speaking to Brazil’s bishops, the Pope remarked how Catholicism had forgotten the “grammar of simplicity.” This simplicity of which Francis speaks is the fundamental need to embody Christian love. Indeed, no theology, however eloquent and sophisticated, carries the power that is transmitted by a simple act of love.
In thinking about his Brazilian trip and what is says about Catholicism’s future, it is easy enough to emphasize the rise of the Catholic south and a refocusing of Catholic concerns relating to human dignity and social justice. It’s also tempting to see a radical break with the pontificate of his immediate predecessor. But to see this papacy in terms of demographics or politics would be to miss the more radical implications of Pope Francis’s words and actions. And there is most certainly a deep underlying continuity between Benedict XVI and Francis in their understandings of the Christian life. This is a papacy about healing and conversion—a healing and conversion that begins with all of us who call ourselves “Catholic.”
Mathew N. Schmalz teaches at the College of the Holy Cross.