Francis’ Pontificate: No Rest for the Aesthetic-Minded?

You’ve got to hand it to Katrina Fernandez. Yesterday on the Crescat blog, she really nails her colors — and spangles, and sequins, and possibly feathers — to the mast. Sighing that the baroque gewgaws Pope Francis has consigned to storage “spiritually feed me” and have “meaning…that I need to experience through my senses,” she concludes: “It’s just so hard to warm up to someone who feels the things you find important and meaningful to be trivial frivolities.”

If she’d wanted to, Kat could surely have made a highfallutin’ intellectual argument on the catechetical value of glitz. Instead, she speaks of her own, personal spiritual needs. That takes guts. Catholics aren’t supposed to have personal needs, not even spiritual ones. We specialize in emptying ourselves, in going without. Laying claim to a need means copping to concupiscence. Kat herself knows this. “I could really be just a big, fat shallow snob,” she admits, and some of her readers have not been slow to confirm her in this self-diagnosis. One calls her “shallow and of superficial faith,” and to hear this person tell it, those are Kat’s good qualities.

Well, I might have the liturgical tastes of a Free Kirk elder, but I also know a thorough, earnest examination of conscience when I read one, and that what Kat’s piece is. It seems to me she’s handling herself a little roughly. As a professional Vaticanista, if a long-distance one, Kat’s used to fixing her gaze on Rome, which, absent a sacking, is bound to remain richer than North Carolina in giant marble cherubim. In her own words, she’s a “mackerel-snapping papist,” who hangs on papal pronouncements, no matter how casual. (This last practice might not be required of Catholics, but if the Vatican wanted to discourage it, Pope-Emeritus Benedict would never have taken to tweeting. Nor would the Curia have staked out its own YouTube channel.) Kat couldn’t ignore the changing of the guard if she wanted to.

For all he dresses down, Pope Francis, for better or worse, can come across like a very humble, very pastoral bull in a china shop. Maybe he never dismissed Benedict’s gilded Mass as a carnival, but the line, in its apparent bluntness and reductiveness, is an uncanny imitation of his style, at least as that style looks when compressed into headlines. When I first read: “Pope says long faces cannot proclaim Jesus,” I thought, “Oh, yeah? Just watch me, viejo.” In context, that flat statement gains reassuring depth, as do most of Francis’ money quotes — even the one about the pickled peppers. But his visual cues remain flat. Sometimes a plain, white cassock is just a plain, white cassock.

That works fine for me, but how are those who read a mozzetta as a reminder of Christ’s eventual kingship to escape a sense of being reproached, even positively dissed?

Here, it might be unseemly of me to plug my managing editor’s work, but I really do believe Elizabeth Scalia, the Anchoress, has part of the answer. In her recent book, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life, Elizabeth warns that Christians tend to “create gods so reflective and shiny, they keep us looking at ourselves.” Anyone who, like Kat, feels an inordinate love for shiny sacramentals might do well to ask herself whether she’s made them into idols that reflect something other than the Divine.

At least from Kat herself, I’m hearing the opposite. From what I can gather, the “meaning” behind Benedict’s red shoes (and behind all the other accessories I could never be bothered to learn the names of) translates like this: “There’s more to reality than the mundane existence of a single mom who struggles to keep body and soul and mind together.” For Kat, the sight of dandy vestments serves as an antidote to the hokiness that surrounds her in the here and now — a here and now also strewn with the devil’s snares.

Pope Francis might be convinced he knows this deal inside out. At the beginning of the last conclave, he warned his fellow cardinal-electors of a “clericalized laity.” The calling of a layperson, Francis said, is not to hang around the sanctuary, but to “to carry his daily cross” and to “to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life.” To Francis’ way of thinking, it would seem, laypeople who compile digital scrapbooks of mitres and chalices and whatnot are lying down on the job.

But this can’t be the whole truth. Not every Catholic who prefers her Masses looking like Dino de Laurentis sets is an escapist, plain and simple. Certainly Kat bears her fair share of the Church’s evangelical burden — and this on top of answering the call to motherhood. As I once wrote of my own addiction to faith films (of all qualities), yearning to sit in God’s presence — as Mary did at Bethany, and as Psalm 27′s narrator does at…well, Jerusalem, I guess — doesn’t have signify chronic torpor. Those contemplative hours can serve as a vitamin shot, propelling us ad extra and even sustaining us there.

I was first admitted to the Sacraments back when I was working in a bank’s foreclosure department. One of the first sins I ever confessed was browbeating a homeowner who’d reneged on a promise he’d made me. “I know Christ loved the poor,” I told the priest, playing for a laugh. “But this guy belongs to the petite-bourgeoisie. Nobody’s been able to stand them.”

In fact, I should have said “us,” and where Francis is concerned, that statement may contain a grain of truth. He’s said he’d like a “a poor Church, and for the poor.” Quite wonderfully, he’s begun to build one, most recently by celebrating Mass at Lampedusa, a frequent stopover for African migrants to Europe. Francis’ simplicity, which he tends to underscore with extravagant gestures, seems calculated to remind the world of this mission.

It’s undeniable that the needs of the world’s poor — succor against hunger, disease, and political oppression — are more acute than the need of lower-middle-income (and even more prosperous) Americans for relief from banality by flash. But that need is real, and if Francis can’t see clear to satisfying everyone, that’s unfortunate. We relatively safe and prosperous Yanquis may just have to get used to our place in the triage tent. For Kat, and probably for others, that shouldn’t have to mean renouncing a love for bells and smells, but it may mean smashing the idol of a sympathetic and responsive pope, or the the notion that thinking with the Church is a cinch.

A prognosis for a pontificate should contain some good. In my experience, if you’re constantly flung up against some disappointing person or thing, in a situation where neither escape nor meltdown is an option, you end up finding something to like about it. Take my bishop, Thomas Olmsted. For while, for various reasons, I nursed a grudge against him. Just as I was beginning to realize how pointless that was, I had the chance to meet him. Once I abstracted my prejudices, he impressed me with his warm handshake, and more, with his unfashionable glasses. He seemed a man without vanity, which is more than I’ve ever been able to say for myself.

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