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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  • Michael

    “Catholics aren’t supposed to have personal needs, not even spiritual ones.”

    Though undoubtedly well-intentioned, that right there would be pride.

  • Mary E.

    “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.” This made my night. I agree wholeheartedly, and I love him for it. A simple, kind, humble bull in a china shop . . .

  • Illinidiva

    There are a few things that I was thinking about with this one.. First, Francis is a Latin American populist, so perhaps some of his distaste for pomp has to do with that. The traditional Catholic Church, i.e. the “high Catholic Church,” isn’t known for its advocacy for the preferential option for the poor. It, especially in Argentina, is known for its collusion with the political and economic elites who oppressed the poor. This really explains Francis’ own style which veers toward traditional popular devotions. Second, it does seem that it is mainly converts who like the “high Catholic Church.” I wonder if this has to do with the lack of baggage they have with the Catholic Church. I’m a cradle Catholic and the Church and I have had an on again, off again relationship. Traditional, uber Catholic stuff brings back bad Catholic school memories. I get that Francis cares about the temporal peripheries, but perhaps he is also reaching out to the “spiritual peripheries” that exist in the developed world of people who have fallen away from the Church because of bad experiences by providing a completely different face.

  • Manny

    I’m with you and Katrina. I think you’re both pinpointig a qualm I’m also having with Pope Francis. The sacrementals mean something. The irony is that St. Francs of Assisi motivated and inspired some ofthe most remarkable art of his day. Some say that the art associated in soe fashion with St. Francis initiated the art of he Renaissance. What I said over at Katrina’s is that there needs to be a balance, and it was prbaby to much for a single human to engineer such a balance to satisfy both sides. It’s hard to really assess in retrospect but it seems that St Francis must have balanced it nicely.

  • Erin Pascal

    I agree! I see Pope Francis as a humble, kind, simple, and a loving man. He is a person with an amazing character. I can really see that he is doing his best for the Church and for all of us. Thank you for this post!

  • Andy

    For what is worth – I see the simple style of Pope Francis, his apparent dislike of the “finery” to be valuable. It is hard to approach a person who is decked out to the nines. It is far easier to approach a person who looks like I do – not terribly decked out. Jesus did not send the apostles out with anything. I think that the Pope is reminding us that we are all apostles and that we must trust in God and not our titles or appearances. To me he is reintroducing the need for the church to be approachable, for its ministers to be approachable and to force us to be approachable.

  • Katrina Fernandez

    Aren’t you grateful, Max L., for our wonderful readers who help us see our sins by being so vigilant to point them out? That, that right there is love.

  • Michael

    Katrina, I don’t bother commenting on your posts (see: ignorance, invincible). I simply pray for you. Sincerely and fervently that you will be liberated from your self-imposed prison of deep-seated unhappiness, fear, and pain that only the grace of the Holy Spirit can heal. Be well.

  • Gordis85

    Pope Francis is who he is he by the grace of God. I am sure he is well aware of how many are confounded by his take on what he does, says, wears, does not wear, does not do…but despite all the assumptions, speculations, rants, praises, he is true to himself, true to God, and true to his call as a faithful son of the Church, of Mary, and of St. Ignatius.

    Therefore, I remain grateful to our Lord Jesus for having called his little son out from among the many who were in line to be called to take up the task of bearing the universal Church upon his shoulders. That task is beyond monumental and I thank Papa Francis for his yes.

    May the good Lord continue to give him the stamina, the heart, and the deep abiding faith in order to continue to preach the Good News, walk the walk, and lead us along the road of Calvary that leads to Heaven.

    I will follow even if he only were to wear sandals and a sackcloth because regardless of that, he is the Vicar of Christ and the successor of St. Peter, the Rock.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    Are you saying it is pride to have personal needs, or that it is pride to claim one is not supposed to have personal needs? Catholics do have personal needs. This is a difficult truth; difficult because it is true, and because it is easier either to ignore one’s needs or to wallow in them, rather than find the healthy mean where one correctly perceives and satisfies true needs, while being open to others in sacrifice and abnegation.

  • Katrina Fernandez

    OOOo, sin your reading hearts can you do Max’s next. I’m sure he’s dying to know what’s in there.

  • Michael

    I’m saying it’s pride to think we SHOULDN’T have personal needs.

    We ALL have needs. We are need-y beings. We are finite, flawed, desperately-in-need-of-grace-and-salvation creatures whose promise of redemption can only be realized when we humbly acknowledge that there is only one God, and it is not I.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    No argument here.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    The problem with the bull in a china shop is that he is destroying things he ought not destroy, so should we approve of a pope acting thus?

    For myself, I think Pope Francis is not the proverbial bull. In his acts so far, I see a man with a great capacity for synthesis while confidently remaining his own man. He appreciates the things his predecessors did well, and wishes to correct the problems he sees as most pressing, and proclaiming Jesus Christ through it all. Do I wish his liturgical style were higher? Yes, but there is ample evidence that he feels he cannot do that, for his own soul’s sake, and I respect his decision.

  • Gordis85

    I too would like to see his liturgical style more in the style of his predecessor but I also respect his choice to worship Christ as he has always done and from what I have seen many times since his election, with love, with reverence, and with joy.

    I read the John Thavis article today about Papa Francis’s love and respect for Papa Benedict…that indeed is a great blessing and one we should all take to heart. There is hope for Papa Francis to continue to grow in grace by virtue of his office and with Papa Benedict there to pray and to speak with him, I am all the more content.

  • Gordis85


  • David L Alexander

    Pope Francis is a Jesuit. From when they were the first religious community to recite the Office in common, rather than chant it, those of the Society of Jesus have traditionally been known for indifference to the minutiae of liturgical ceremony. When one spends more time reading serious books, and less time reading would-be pundits on the internet, one tends to pick up stuff like that.

  • Maryse

    Is it possible the Almighty sent us this lover of poverty to express reparation for the sins of clerical sexual abuse? Over and above our personal preferences, isn’t what Pope Francis shows – and impresses – the world more important?

  • MeanLizzie

    I see that picture and all I think is Walt Whitman: “Steer, O Helmsman! On the soul’s voyage!”

  • Mary E.

    Speaking only for myself, I was thinking more of Francises manner as that of a “bull in a china shop,” not his actions. I don’t see that he’s destroyed anything, but from what I can observe, once he makes a decision, he takes action promptly, rather than “finessing” then situation. And he speaks directly, and come across as untroubled by how his comments might be perceived. If he expresses himself awkwardly on a point, he pushes on straight ahead: he doesn’t double back to qualify his comment, or to explain what he meant. Those traits don’t bother me, but they do seem to put some other people in a state of alarm, judging from the fearful comments I’ve read since his election.

  • Manic Doodlings

    As someone who for whom Francis resonated with right off the bat, I was more than a little irritated reading the Crescat article. Your critique of it being measured, sober & not at all judgmental (at least in my view) has helped me to see & remind me of my own biases & realize that we all have them & they may or may not be right or wrong but are mostly about personal taste…

  • Jim

    With regard to Bishop Olmstead, I knew him thirty years ago during my stint in the seminary. He is one of the most humble, genuine men you will ever meet. I had nothing but the utmost respect for him as an exemplar of what the priesthood was all about.