Much has been made of the new pope’s humility over the last few days . . .
The pope who chose not to use an elevated platform to address the crowd after his introduction, preferring to stand among his fellow cardinals rather than above them.
The pope who eschewed more ornate attire for a simple white cassock — a sharp contrast to his predecessor and to all the grandeur of the Vatican.
The pope who asked the people for their blessing before he presumed the right to pronounce one on them.
The pope who rode the bus back to the hotel with the other cardinals, instead of taking the private sedan that is now one of the many perks of his new job.
The pope who stopped by his hotel the following day to pick up his own luggage and pay his own bill.
The pope who actually knows how to crack a joke.
The pope who interrupted the procession to his own installation in order to bless a disabled man.
As a cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, and rode the bus to work.
Like the saint from whom he took his name, Francis dreams of a “poor church [that is] for the poor.”
Make no mistake: Francis is no progressive. Don’t expect to see him rethinking the church’s stance on a celibate priesthood, contraception, women priests, or gays and lesbians. Even if he were inclined to be more of a reformer than he is, time is not on his side. The new pontiff is 76 years old, bucking all the pre-conclave speculation that the cardinals would choose someone younger to succeed Benedict.
So don’t expect much institutional or theological change in the Catholic Church over the next few years.
Still, Pope Francis could effect a different kind of change. All the early signs suggest that he will try to build a Church that is humbler, more accessible, more reflective, more aware of its own shortcomings. A simpler church for a complex world.
It would be a welcome change.
Don’t get me wrong. As someone who grew up without much liturgy, I’ve come to appreciate the pageantry — the pomp and circumstance — of the liturgical tradition. I find comfort in its rich symbolism and its contemplative rhythms. I love it when my Episcopal church breaks out the incense (which we don’t do as often as our Catholic brothers and sisters).
But there is danger in becoming too remote, too far removed, too caught up in ourselves and in our traditions — at which point a liturgy that was originally meant to connect people to the divine becomes instead a barrier, keeping them at arm’s length.
We need liturgy. We need ceremony. Maybe even a little pomp and circumstance now and then. But we must not build these edifices as monuments to our own tradition.
Several years ago, while touring St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I overheard a priest telling a group of students why the interior was so ornate. It was because God deserves the very best, he explained. Maybe so, but it’s easy to forget that God intends for his church to direct its wealth outward, not inward.
This is not just a Catholic or a “high church” problem, either. While in college, I took a class trip to a prominent evangelical megachurch. They were about to embark on a multimillion-dollar campaign to build a state-of-the-art auditorium (not a “sanctuary,” they were quick to point out). They were one of the first to put a Starbucks-style coffee shop on their “campus.” Their worship services were finely-tuned productions — no less elaborate than the most ornate liturgical service.
Our guide explained that they wanted everything they did to be characterized by “excellence.” Hence the auditorium, gourmet coffee, and elaborate weekend productions. But he was stumped when someone from our group asked how they drew the line between excellence and self-serving opulence.
We all need to hear Francis’ warning against “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church.” We should all hope he succeeds at reshaping Catholic tradition.
Because if he does, he might end up changing it for years to come. If his desire for a simpler, humbler church — a “poor church for the poor” — manages to reinvigorate Catholicism, it may be harder for it to return to the status quo when the time comes to select a new pope.
And at the end of the day, a humbler, more reflective Church might just become a more welcoming place for those currently relegated to the margins.