So Pope Francis said to himself when he was elected Bishop of Rome, as he told journalists in Rome on last Saturday, what about the poor? Bishop of Rome means Pope and his question was what does it mean to take the poor seriously as Bishop of Rome?
That’s Pope Francis’s question. But it’s far from clear how Jorge Bergoglio is going to handle the practical consequences of becoming Pope Francis.
The issues are clear: reform of Church governance, root and branch; giving voice and status to local churches in the governance of the Church that has been centralized in Rome with ever increasing magnetism for the last three decades; listening to the issues and concerns of everyday Catholics.
But what might be most significant early on in his Pontificate and suggestive of directions is an answer to this question: how long can someone who walked out of the palatial residence of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires to find a home in an apartment near the poor want to live in the Borgia apartments where Popes have lived for the last 500 years.
Festooned with wall paintings by Rafael and adorned with works by Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters, how long can a man espousing a Church of the poor for the poor last in such Renaissance glory? Pope Paul VI was the first to dispense with the elevated “gestorial” chair on which Pontiffs were carried. John Paul II did away with precious stones in episcopal rings, preferring a simple cross and unadorned rings for his own right hand finger, and many bishops have followed his lead.
The next thing to go must be the titles introduced for bishops and Cardinals which are an invention of the 18th Century for Church officials to be able to match what the Italian aristocracy claimed for themselves – Excellency, Your Grace, Your Eminence, etc.
Benedict XVI brought back the red shoes, the ermine adornment of his jacket and even the funny hat worn first by the Medici Popes. But that will be seen for the aberration it is.
Now comes the simple man from Buenos Aires, the son of the railway worker.
What does that mean?
Plainly it means he’s his own man. And that’s not surprising. His body language screams it.
But as a Jesuit, his formative experience is the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. For good or for ill, the Exercises are a radically personal matter. They sheet home responsibility to the individual for the spiritual journey.
Many have said that he carries baggage from his time during the reign of the military dictatorship in Argentina – 1976-1983 – when “disappearances”. Torture and all manner of inhumanity prevailed.
The Jesuits have been quite open about his history then. He had nothing to do with the barbarians who abused their people but he could have done more to defend, advocate for and support the victims of that dreadful regime.
Perhaps like us all, he’s learnt from his experience. Perhaps as a good practitioner of the Spiritual Exercises, he has learnt a lot more about what a sinner he is. Perhaps like a flawed human being who has recognised his flaws, he’s become more human.
Certainly his early performance as bishop of Rome indicates that he has his theology right: he’s not the CEO of a multinational with braches around the world. He’s the pastor of a particular community – Rome – which has an added responsibility: presiding in charity with the bishops of the Church over all the Churches.
But what is he to do about his living arrangements?
The answer is simple really: stare down the security freaks concerned about him and the assassins who want to kill him, find an apartment in an appropriate area, commute to work like everyone else, even heads of State, operate out of an office like any other CEO, make the Borgia apartments into offices, appear for the two Angelus events each week from the window where he addressed the people of Rome, and get a life!
Fr. Michael Kelly SJ