Keep it Simple…For Now?

One day in the agora, tradition has it, Diogenes passed a group of spiffily dressed Athenians and dismissed their finery as “mere affectation.” A little later, a group of Spartans wearing homespun and noble, haunted expressions impressed him no better. “More affectation,” he said, and stomped on home to his jug.

I think of this story whenever I read about some unexpected display of humility on Pope Francis’ part. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not calling the pope a fake. But he must know that when a man of his dignity acts like just plain folks by paying his own bills, cancelling his own newspaper subscriptions and dental appointments, or tsk-tsking over the excessive floor space in his new apartment, the world’s bound to notice. Spectacle is a big part of the papal office, and everything an occupant says, does, or — maybe especially — wears is co-opted into that spectacle. Francis’ papal persona, then, is anti-spectacular to a spectacular degree.

All this by way of offering reassurance to Louie Verrecchio. In Catholic Exchange, Verrecchio proves he understands spectacle very well, especially when it comes to Francis’ liturgical tastes. In his worst nightmares, “small gestures” like the scorning of the mozzetta and the stripping-down of the blessing will do nothing but give aid and comfort to “clapping liturgical lunatics who despise tradition and can barely contain themselves in giddy anticipation of what this papacy might hold for the future of their cause.”

These worries aren’t totally baseless. Something about Pope Francis encouraged Conrad Black to urge him to lift the church’s ban on artificial birth control. This in the National Review. (If Buckley’s not spinning in his grave, Bozell must be doing a danza Mora in his.) But closer observers are less happy-clappy over the possibility of doctrinal revision. John Allen, Jr. warns Francis won’t likely carry his previous (and apparently reluctant) support for same-sex civil unions into his pontificate. This in National Catholic Reporter.

In any case, Francis has gone on record denouncing “the spiritual poverty of our time,” which he defines as “the tyranny of relativism.” That’s Benedict’s line, and Francis gave his predecessor full credit. If there’s a nicer way of telling would-be reformers, “Ha-ha, no hermeneutic of rupture for you,” I can’t imagine what it might be.

To Verrecchio’s way of thinking, papal pomp has another, more practical use. The triregnum, sedia gestatoria, and ostrich-plume fans, he says, rank “among our most effective tools for the work of evangelization.” I’d love to see the numbers behind that claim, but in their absence, I can cite at least one recent anecdote to the contrary. The day of Francis’ election, Rabia Chaudry, a friend of mine who writes for AltMuslim, remarked on Facebook that Francis’ folksy style seemed to mirror what she understood to be Jesus’ own. The next day, when I posted an article about the new pope’s first 24 hours, she gushed, “May God preserve him in all his ways!”

Now, I’m not holding my breath for Rabia to swim the Tiber, but if she did — wow. Could you imagine a better ally in a modesty debate?

We can argue whether evangelizing in the rough is seemly, but it’s hard to deny that it works. In When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s documentary on the 1974 Foreman-Ali fight, a Kinshasa resident admits frankly that he and his countrymen favored the aging Ali over the apparently invincible Foreman. Part of the reason was Ali’s frantic affability. The challenger invited small mobs of locals to his sparring sessions, visited Kinshasa’s slums — in short, did the whole baby-kissing routine. Though Foreman “seemed more black,” as Norman Mailer gracelessly put it in The Fight, his reserve made him the outsider. The champ hurt his cause further by keeping a German shepherd, a favorite of the Belgian colonial police, as his own Noble Guard.

It works because it shows confidence — in the the mob and the message. If the one rebuffs, the other will endure. Pope-Emeritus Benedict has been widely acclaimed as the best-dressed pontiff in recent memory. (Charlotte Allen calls him “the Duke of Windsor of popes,” proving that even when the media want to be nice to him, they reach for a Nazi metaphor.) As a hands-on evangelist he proved himself no slouch, making numerous trips despite his advanced age, and subjecting himself to plenty of inane photo ops. But his discomfort was plainly visible, and I have always wondered whether his dandyism wasn’t a form of compensation for his shyness, that is, whether he chose clothes he hoped would make his impression for him.

Of course, it’s possible to radiate confidence and good cheer in the fullest papal regalia. No pope has ever had more popular appeal than John XXIII, who did wear the triple tiara, and who — though not exactly waifish — permitted himself to be borne in the portable throne. But he was a pope for his time, and Francis is a pope for his. In Francis’ view, finery tends to confuse the message that the Church is for the poor, and ceremony the truth that it’s willing to be jostled in the street. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s definitely stripping critics of their cover. With no “carnival” — to borrow a term that Francis may or may not have uttered — for a stalking horse, whoever disputes Church teachings will have no choice but to argue strictly from the merits of their positions.

Verrecchio observes that “the ornate vestments and the vast assortment of liturgical finery…has never been the property of Benedict XVI or any other pope.” He’s right, and that ought to ease his fears. Papal haute couture in general, along with the grand manner, doesn’t belong to Francis, either, and he’s shown no sign of wanting to throw either away permanently. It looks more like he’s putting them all in safekeeping for a while, maybe until more of the world’s ready for them.

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  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Mozzeretta? Autocorrect? Mozzetta, Max, Mozzetta! There’s some will have your baptism for that! :-)

  • deiseach

    Hmm – I’m in the middle about this. I don’t think that simplicity is a bad thing, and I don’t see Pope Francis as being ostentatiously simple – that crack about “carnival time is over” I don’t believe he made, and it’s especially tasteless coming from an inhabitant of the land of Taj Mahony (how many millions did that edifice cost again, Cardinal Simplicity?)

    So I think that while he is liturgically ‘low’, that does not mean theologically or doctrinally progressive. And frankly, Conrad Black’s effusion made no sense – by relaxing the ban on contraception, the Church will be stronger against Islam? Because it can refute the depiction of the West as being dissolute by defending the doctrine that sexual activity has a particular dignity and end – so long as you make sure to use a condom for your one-night stand whom neither of you ever want to meet again?

    But I disagree with you about Benedict’s dandyism, because I don’t see it as liking to dress up. I agree with you about the shyness, and as an introverted type myself, there is often a great relief in having an ‘official’ costume or a uniform to wear, so that you can sink yourself into the role and don’t have to deal with others as yourself. I think Benedict was both respecting tradition (the small-t kind), demonstrating that it is better to use these items for the uses for which they were intended rather than letting them be museum pieces, and (I consider) sinking himself in the office so that the papacy, rather than “Benedict the man, his tastes and opinions” were the centre of attention.

    Well, that’s my take on it, anyway :-)

  • JeffC

    Thank you! Having grown up (mostly–I was 8 when he was elected) during the pontificate of Bl. Pope John Paul II, the sartorial choices of Pope Benedict were mostly new to me. I don’t recall seeing John Paul wearing the mozetta all that often, nor the red shoes. I suspect you might be on to something regarding his shyness. The current Pope, and his two predecessors, were all men defined by the times in which they lived, and of the cultures from which they came. I personally like Pope Francis’ style (it reminds me of what I’ve seen of Pope John Paul I, mixed with Bl. John Paul II). I think Donald Prudlo sums it up fairly well:

  • Ron Moffat

    I’ve mixed emotions about this display of simplicity on Francis’ part; it seems that the trappings of office aren’t meant to honor the man, rather the office, which is worthy of all the dignity we can afford it. He is, on the other hand, taking very decisive steps, I think, to change the “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it!” mentality. In the meantime, I take comfort in the idea he’s just put the papal trappings in safe keeping for a bit. Maybe that’ll be a good thing in the end.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Wow! This is the first time I’ve hear Pope John XXIII referred to as “waifish”. :-)

    [I understand Old Navy was so determined to draft him as a model, he almost had to declare himself a prisoner of the Vatican.]

  • Theodore Seeber

    Yes, the office is worthy of all the dignity we can afford it.

    But I’m in a country trapped between a bunch of moral fiscal libertines and a bunch of moral sexual libertines, and the best 98% of Catholics could do in the last election was choose the lesser evil in accordance with their conscience.

    Somehow, dignity of the office doesn’t rank so high for me any more- and Pope Francis’s simplicity, while it may all be superficial window dressing, has given me more hope for the future of the species homo sapiens than any other news item in the last 10 years.

  • Kristen inDallas

    (Unfortunately?) the pope (the office, regardless of the man inhabiting it) is a celebrity. And like any celebrity, his choice of outfit, his manerisms, the little everyday things he does are going to be overanalyzed, and either criticised or glorified, no matter what he does. In my opinion the celebrities that appear to the public eye as gracious, humble (to the extent possible), and generally like decent human beings are the ones that seem to accept the celebrity as a necesary part of their job, and get on with their day with lives making decisions fully aware of that microscope. Are Angelina’s adopted children and aid work in Africa just one giant press op? Don’t know, don’t care – because either way it beats a flim-flam marriage or a series of reckless DUIs – which seems to be what happens to other celebrities whether they are just bad press ops or a result of what happens when you try to pretend that no one is looking. The pope is a celebrity, People are going to think he’s showing it off whether he’s wearing a big gold hat and red shoes or a friar-tuck robe. This pope seems to have accepted that. The microscope has always been there, and I am more than okay with him using it to show us the things he cares about.

  • Yae

    Hum…I think all the popes have been celebrities, to some extent, whether they liked it or not. I am thinking that as he continues to take it all in and enjoys what free time he still has, eventually it may tone down as the burden of the office begins to wear on him but then again, he may always strive to do what he has been accustomed to doing, who knows. As much as I like his style, it is not realistic since he is now pope and his heady days of independence are soon gone. I believe the many graces that come with said office will begin to work in him and he may temper some of his activities much like blessed JPII did.
    He has to remember his safety comes first as it will serve no purpose to have him hurt as he walks about greeting the crowds…too risky. He is assured of my prayers for sure though. ^^

  • Nicholas


    I think “dandyism” is the wrong adjective to describe Benedict XVI’s scheme of vesture. To me, it seems to imply three things that are not at all true about Benedict, and which I think you did not mean to imply:

    1) Excess wealth.
    2) The desire to flaunt said wealth.
    3) Personal vanity.

    As a coping strategy for being an introvert in an extrovert’s job…possible, but I think it more likely that the following paragraph from Thomas Day’s invaluable book Why Catholics Can’t Sing describes the case (I consider vestments to be a subgenre of liturgical art):

    The liturgical art of the past deliberately distracted the worshiper’s attention away from priest [sic], away from his personality. Every statue and every mosaic subtracted a little from his presence. (p. 141)

    As the various reactions to Benedict’s vesture have shown, it may be that we’re not there at all anymore; certainly we are not there with the trappings of the papal coronation, which the modern mind cannot see as anything but erroneous.

    I’m going to stop worrying about papal liturgy, except to pray that Pope Francis keeps Msgr. Marini; a good MC can steer a noble and reverent liturgy in lace or in linen.

  • Manny

    I think it comes to leadership style. Some leaders get people to follow because they’re the golden-haired boy and project an aura that they alone know the path through the forest. Some leaders get people to follow because they project that you’re one of them and so make them feel comfortable that you have their best intentions in mind as you work your way through the forest. Not saying that Pope Francis is ignorant of the path, but that he’s more of the latter while B16 was more of the former.