It’s easy to love Pope Francis. In one of his first acts as pope, he stopped by the hotel where he stayed before the conclave to settle his bill himself. With no fanfare he melts into the dark streets of Rome at night to hang out with the homeless. Shunning the official Papal Apartment of the Apostolic Palace, he lives in the less extravagant digs of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the so-called “Vatican hotel.” He has said he wants his living quarters to be characterized by “simplicity and sharing.” He dines communally, usually eating a simple meal of baked skinless chicken, salad, fruit and a glass of wine. Pope Francis lives so simply that it’s causing problems in the niche market of clerical garb. They need more business!
Bergoglio’s election—in the midst of global economic recession—benefited from perfect timing. A year later followers and detractors of the Vatican alike continue to love his humility and simplicity. By all accounts, the Pope’s habits are not calculated public relations ploys. They seem to be authentic expressions of simple living and concern for the poor. For Christians who read warnings in their sacred texts about the dangers of wealth and the importance of sacrificial giving, these actions are refreshing indeed. Crowds at the Vatican have tripled since he became pontiff.
It’s this context that made the simple-living pontiff’s recent encounter with a very expensive chocolate replica of himself so intriguing. Earlier this month Mirco Della Vecchia, a master chocolatier, and twenty of his students from the Accademia of Maestri Cioccolatieri in Guatemala constructed a chocolate doppelganger of Francis. The world cheered; this masterpiece, after all, combined two of the world’s most favorite things: the pope and chocolate. How did Francis respond? He grinned one of his lopsided wry smiles and graciously accepted it. Most observers expect him to donate the gift to charity, as he did with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle last year.
The Pope’s reaction reminds me of the account in Christian Scripture of Jesus’ response to his followers Mary and Martha. Jesus, who certainly lived more like the service-oriented Martha, made a point of honoring Mary, who reveled in the presence and beauty of the Lord. She would later pour a flask of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Jesus himself, despite constant temptations to wealth and power and comfort, would go on, after this act of veneration, to serve others by healing, teaching, and dying. By graciously accepting generous gifts while continuing to practice simple living, Francis seems to be following this example.
Simple living is often perceived as a burdensome religious practice. But the Pope–who seems to really enjoy blessing Harley-Davidson motorcycles–and others remind us that simple living can be fun. Doris Longacre, author of the Mennonite simple living manifesto More with Less Cookbook, reminds us to live joyfully and to celebrate. After all, the “four Gospels show Jesus entering wholeheartedly into times of joy and feasting.” Nearly a year ago, just before celebrating his first Easter, which for a novice pope must have been a moment of particular gravity, Pope Francis exhibited a striking sense of whimsy and humor. On Tuesday of Holy Week, he celebrated Mass at the Chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae with his “priestly family.” He preached from the Gospel of John (13:21 and 33:36–38) in which Jesus speaks of Judas’ betrayal and tells Peter that he would deny him three times. Elaborating on themes from the passage, Francis especially noted the profound darkness and loneliness of the night. But he also prayed that hearts be opened to taste the “sweetness” of Christ’s forgiveness. After this holy moment, he gave them all the papal coat of arms–imprinted on a large chocolate Easter egg.