The Quiet Menace: Fixating on Francis, Missing the Point – UPDATED

Having just gone to confession after mass this morning, it was not my intention to get into a little tiff with a media outlet on Twitter, but being who I am, I couldn’t let it go when I saw one of those lazy, thoughtless sneers cross my timeline, to the effect that Pope Francis (good guy) was refusing to stay in (bad guy) “Pope Benedict’s luxurious apartments.”

I needed to disabuse the writer of the notion that Pope Benedict owned anything, including a “luxurious apartment” but that the papal apartment in the Vatican was simply that — the apartment of whoever happens to be pope, used by every pope since 1906, until now. Francis has chosen not to use it, and that’s perfectly fine, but I find myself objecting strenuously when I see people trying to use Francis’ simple tastes as a kind of hammer against his predecessors. “See,” they imply, “he’s a good, humble pope who is united to the poor, not like all of those other wasteful, pampered popes who didn’t care about the poor, before him.”

They would pretend that before this month, the poor weren’t on the church’s radar, or the pope’s. To what purpose? Well, mostly to warp a narrative and foment the easiest sort of hate, which is hate rooted in empty cynicism and ignorance.

I asked some of those who engaged me on twitter whether they would soon be divesting themselves of all luxuries, since owning luxuries, or pretty things, or well-made things is insensitive to the poor.

No one answered.

Since they seemed to feel strongly that as long as the poor exist, a person in leadership should set his tent among them, resisting luxuries or comforts for himself, I asked whether they thought the American President should forego a round of golf, or an expensive dinner, or a “luxury” vacation, for as long as there are people in his country struggling to get by.

No one answered.

I didn’t bother asking whether — since simplicity is now admirable and finer things are not — they would be surrendering their Starbucks coffee for a humble cup of Folgers, each morning.

I didn’t ask because, being a coffee snob, myself, I already know the answer. In a world of rampant materialism and fading prosperity, Pope Francis’ example of simplicity is already challenging me in my own not-extravagant life, and he’s challenging others, too. Eventually, those carrying on about how admirable a model he is for the rest of us will — unless they have no consciences to prick — find themselves roiled by our pope’s humble tastes, because they’ll either have to address their own consumption or face a truth about themselves that they can currently hide beneath righteous moralizing.

Interestingly enough, there is a sort of flip-side to the secular press’ expedient, semi-mystified fixation with Francis’ simplicity, and it exists within the church, among those of us who are confused, or perhaps a little concerned, about what Francis’ humility means, and how far he means to take it. I can understand some of that concern. While Jorge Bergoglio is now Francis, he is first and foremost Peter, and I “get” what some Catholics mean when they say that if Francis were “really as humble as he seems” he would look at the papal trappings he finds uncomfortable or distasteful and simply acquiesce to them, out of humility for the office, because in the end none of them are about him.

I understand that they are not so much doubting Francis’ humility as expressing fear for the sake of Peter and how he is understood and received.

Some of my friends are liking Francis well enough but they’re still “waiting and trusting” to see what he means by his actions; they’re concerned that he means to minimize the role of Peter by subsuming it to his role as Bishop of Rome. And some are even a little hurt that, rather than giving the world a bigtime Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper at the the Lateran Basilica that we can all watch, he is celebrating that important liturgy in a small house of detention, among fifty young men and women in trouble, many of them Muslims.

Francis is making a point that needs making, and he is doing it by simply being who he is. I think he really is that humble, and since he is no idiot, I believe he is aware that, to an extent, when he puts off the “trappings of the office” he is raising eyebrows. The reality, though, is that Francis is only putting into action what his predecessor taught.

The eyebrow-raising may be necessary if, as I suspect, Francis is engaging in a long strategy of change and renewal — an action begun by Benedict XVI when he announced his resignation. Benedict knew the world had stopped paying attention, so he did the one thing that could get its attention — its serious attention. In so doing, he gave the Holy Spirit room to move.

Now that the church has the world’s attention — and the Holy Spirit has that room to move — Francis is quickly taking away every superficial objection to the church, and thus exposing the world and its judgement to be the empty, profitless kvetching it is. If I may give a voice to Francis’ actions, they would sound like this:

“You didn’t like Peter in red shoes? Here is Peter in black. You didn’t like Peter in brocade? Here is Peter looking kind of disheveled. You didn’t like Peter being shy and standoffish? Here is Peter hopping down to kiss the face of a deformed man whose existance makes you uncomfortable — whose life you would deem of insufficient use and quality to be sustained! We Catholics know well enough to be careful what we ask for; you asked for this and you got it — now deal with it when this Peter upholds church teachings you will still hate and resent, only by then you won’t be able to hide behind a contrived “righteous indignation” on behalf of the poor; then you will have to admit to the reality of all you hate. Then, you will have to look inward, to the poverty within your own soul, and you will have to decide who and what you will serve, stripped of all illusions, unprotected by shabbily-erected narratives.”

The pope is still the pope, whether he uses the papal apartments or not; whether he calls himself the Bishop of Rome or not. Peter is still Peter whether he is on the throne or walking amongst those who need the healing grace of his shadow.

Benedict saw a Curia — and a church — in serious trouble; like a boxer pinned too long in a corner by a world bent on destruction, he understood that if the church was going to survive she needed to get back into the corner for some refreshment and restoration, and then come out swinging. He rang the bell and gave the church that chance.

Practically from the moment he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s, gazing with remarkable placidity upon the throng before him, it has been clear that this pope is a spiritual brawler — to the world, a quiet menace, because a spiritual brawler will smile and offer you nothing but ferocious tenderness, the kind that will impact, repeatedly, on the solar plexus, until we are breathless and ready for mercy. The world needs precisely this sort of pummeling — anything besides tenderness, and its guard would be forever up. As I have said before, everyone in turn, and in varying measures, is going to find something to love about Francis and something to be bugged by; we’re all going to be challenged out of our comfort zones.

Stop worrying, and watch. It’s going to be fascinating. Nothing Francis is doing is in any way going to change who and what Peter is; in fact, he is going to help clarify to the world exactly who Peter is — the man around whom the Office was created, and who has been, perhaps, too encumbered by some of its walls. Before he ever had a mitre or a staff, he walked among the crowds and took counsel with other apostles. This particular iteration of Peter may actually be the one under whom the unifying work of Benedict may actually blossom into something solid and lasting. In that case, there is a good chance Peter will want to create a council that includes reps from every continent and from Orthodoxy. Be ready for that.

But he will still be Peter; still the Vicar of Christ and the keeper of the Keys.

And too, different people have different needs. Benedict, the introvert, needed some space and shelter to recharge. Francis, the extrovert needs people close by for his energy. Sometimes a thing can be that simple.

So, I do wish my fellow-Catholics who are feeling out-of-sorts or uncertain about the news and images coming from Rome would be at peace, and trust that the Holy Spirit knows what he is about. I have no problem with this Peter eschewing a world-broadcasted Holy Thursday at Lateran, however much I would have loved to watch it, because I think he is trying to tell us something: that we should stop fixating on the man of Peter or the office, and look more deeply at serving, healing and evangelizing within our own communities, just as he is doing, as Bishop of Rome. And this is nothing more than a return to our roots. The church was never built from Rome outward, but from communities upward, to Rome. Perhaps that is how her restoration will come, too.

“Francis, restore my church.” John Paul II talked about the “Springtime of Evangelization” and Benedict propelled us into the “New Evangelization.” Well, we’re being shown something new, alright. After a long, cold winter, something is springing up from our roots like a shoot that surprises us.

I feel excited. I trust in the promise. And I am so grateful for Benedict’s trust in it, too. We need always to keep our eyes on the long view. Peter does not think in days and moments, but in centuries. I’m not worried. Whatever we may not understand, the Holy Spirit does.

Pope Francis’ Coat of Arms has been modified, slightly. Interesting to note that the simplification of the papal arms (Mitre instead of crown) came from Pope Benedict XVI.

Update II:
Pope’s actions speak louder than his words

Archbishop Chaput:
Francis is the Medicine Needed
Francis and Assisi via New Advent

New Shoot image courtesy of

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Yae

    Your piece is a beautiful one and one that I have found reassuring. In these heady weeks I have found myself, in prayer, sharing with Jesus how grateful I am for Papa Francis. I may not understand yet the why of his simplicity but I sense it is there on the border of understanding and of embracing it. I have renewed my trust in Divine Providence and I remain convinced all of this is for the good of the Church.
    Looking at my own poverty, I see much which needs renewal and I see in Papa Francis traits which I want to imitate and share too.
    For example and there are plenty:
    The love of Christ, complete trust in Christ and in his mercy, a deeper love for Christ in the sacraments, love of neighbor, a deeper prayer life, letting go of pride and self-righteousness.
    I saw those same traits in Papa Benedict as well and I will pray to follow their example.
    If we can set aside “our wants” we will truly be ONE CHURCH UNITED in Christ so that all will believe.
    Anyway, than you again for your wonderful piece. It is one I will read again and reflect on. Have a wonderful Holy Week and a blessed Easter!

  • srocha

    Bravo, Elizabeth! Bravo!

  • deiseach

    Well, the thing about the Papal Apartments is nonsense. Any calls for President Obama to move his family out of the White House? Any notions that he “owns” the “luxury mansion” there? Same thing about the Papal Apartments.

    I think Pope Francis is entitled to live where he likes (and he is continuing to use the Papal offices for official functions, so it’s not like he’s moved the whole shebang into a shoebox under a bridge) and I can understand him staying in the Domus St. Marthae when he doesn’t have a network around him like former popes have had; he hasn’t brought anyone with him from Argentina, he’s not a Curia member, he’s not plugged in to the Roman/Vatican network. So it is different for him.

    But saying “Bad! Benedict lived in luxury, Good! Francis lives in simplicity” is just using any stick to beat the dog.

  • Herkybird

    When you read a snide and sneering remark by some journalista about Catholics, the Church or the Pope, you might take some comfort in this anecdote told by Author Thomas Cahill about militant atheist turned firm believer, Malcolm Muggeridge in his book ‘Desire of the Everlasting Hills.’

    “Malcolm Muggeridge, the supremely secular British curmudgeon, who cast a cold eye over so many contemporary efforts and enterprises, was brought up short while visiting an Indian Leprosarium founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He had always imagined secular humanism to be the ideal world-view but realized, while strolling through this facility, built with love for those whom no one wanted, that no merely humanist vision can take account of lepers, let alone take care of them. To offer human treatment to humanity’s outcasts, to overcome their lifetime experience of petty human cruelties requires more than mere humanity. Humanists, he realized with the force of sudden insight, do not run leprosariums.”

  • Pingback: Pope Francis’ First Audience and Missing the Point

  • Veronica

    “I asked some of those who engaged me on twitter whether they would soon be divesting themselves of all luxuries, since owning luxuries, or pretty things, or well-made things is insensitive to the poor.”

    Oh yes! Beautiful piece and well written, Elizabeth! Some people love to make this type of comments: as soon as they are compelled to act upon their words, the flee. I have been engaged in a similar battle in Facebook. One person made a comment along the lines of “Now with Francis some people will have some surprises! Away with the lace and the fancy dudes in our churches!” Coming from a poor church in Caracas, I remember our pastor’s polyester green chasuble, but we started a saving schedule and as soon as we collected some extra money, he put it towards the purchase of new, more beautiful vestments, a new image of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the church, and a new tabernacle.

    I told my friend that if a church can afford fine vestments, there’s nothing wrong with that (besides, there are some beautifully made and very affordable made by nuns in Poland). God deserves a beautiful liturgy and, depending on the particular circumstances, there is room for the beautiful lace and for the humble polyester, as long as everything is done with decorum and love for God. He replied that how can we afford fine vestments when there is so much hunger in the world an poor people we could help with the money. I invited him to sell his iPad and replace it with a pad and a pen for classes, to not to buy that new set of golf clubs he wanted so bad, and to not to buy the designer’s brand clothes he likes and start buying clothes at Wal-Mart (nothing wrong with this either, BTW). With all the extra money he’s going to get, he will be able to either use it to help someone in need in the community or increase the amount of money he gives in the collection on Sundays. He did not reply either.

    By the way, for those with some questions still in their minds about Pope Francis, I read a very fine piece earlier today from the NCRegister about Pope Francis in the words of priests that worked with him “‘Rome Will Not Change Him,’ Argentinian Catholics Say of Pope Francis.” I highly recommend it:

    Laudetur Jesus Christus!


  • Cecilia

    The nasty comments elsewhere about the size of the papal apartment made me wonder just how many books those commenters own. Pope Benedict had 20,000 books in there, and that takes up a whole lot of space!

  • Tom

    Remember, we get the Pope that we need for the time we live in. Perhaps Pope Francis feels that the biggest current threat to Christianity is the materialism rampant in today’s society. Materialism is at the heart of many of the ills of society, from environmental problems (our disposable society) to abortion (“We really can’t afford a child right now. Maybe in a couple of years.”). Perhaps his stewardship will lead us to be better stewards of all of our resources, be they our time, our talents or our treasures. There are many unnecessary things we spend our money on. Think about how much wealthier (in many ways) we would be if we were better stewards.

    He also might like living in community, gathering spiritual strength from those around him.

  • Pingback: What is Pope Francis Up To? | Axis of Right

  • nancyo

    This is terrific – I’ve already read it three times! Did you see John Thavis’ post from today? It’s complementary to yours and talks about how Pope Francis is starting his reform by evangelizing the Vatican – laying the spiritual groundwork.

  • Laura

    Beautiful piece, Elizabeth. Thank you. You put into words much of what I have been feeling and unable to express. As my spiritual director advised me: watch and observe. Try not to make a judgement and feel too much. Remember.

  • vox borealis

    The reality, though, is that Francis is only putting into action what his predecessor taught.
    I’m not sure I understand this entirely. HIs predecessor slowly but surely brought back many “trappings” of the office that had been used for a long time but were put aside in the spirit of the age of the 1960s and 1970s. In so doing, Benedict emphasized the continuity of the Church, its teachings, its theology, its office—that the Church didn’t begin in 1963.

    So I am not clear how Francis’ decision to, it seems (or at least it has been received as such) quickly shed many of those very same external signs of continuity is putting into action what Benedict taught. In fact, I would argue Francis’ mode has been disruptive, as evidenced by so many contrasting him with Benedict (the ol’ good Francis v. bad Benedict meme you mention), including by those within the Church. He has demonstrated in practice a form of rupture, not continuity with his predecessor.

    I’m am convinced Francis is a holy and humble man. Nevertheless, I am very concerned about the implications of his actions so far, and not because they challenge me about my own lifestyle. Time will tell, I guess.

  • Victor

    (((No one answered.)))

    What they giving YA the cold shoulder too Anchoress?

    I can recall as a child, our city having parades during Easter and I use to wonder how the rest of society could stand for “IT” all. I must have really been a skitso who was made UP of good and bad cells cause part of me would think of hearing stuff like: Crucify him, Crucify him! Folks, “IT” is expedient for U>S that one man should die for the people so that the whole nation will not perish. People don’t worry bout “IT” cause His blood will be on all of U>S (usual sinners) and our children will reap the benefit as we go out to get her and if we work together their church, I mean their country will be ours NOW!

    I hear YA sinner vic! Victor! Victor! Victor! Don’t be taken in by all that Country Music cause “IT” just makes YA too sensitive and that really scares U>S when YA “Get Down” to your bear Roots NOW!

    Go Figure! :)

    Keep UP the good words Anchoress

    Happy Easter


  • Marye

    Just a small note, regarding the Mass of Holy Thursday. Pope Francis would not have been able to hold it at St. John Lateran because he has not yet taken possession of the basilica, due to the Lenten season. The Vatican announced today that he’s scheduled to do so the week after Easter: “″. We’ll see where he holds the Holy Thursday Mass next year.

    As far as the secular press, I imagine that within a few months, we’ll read reports that Pope Francis doesn’t “really” care for the poor because he’s not actively supporting some government program or another.

  • InfiniteGrace

    Breathless and ready for mercy.

    Bravo Anchoress.

  • IC

    This is a great essay.

    Making Francis the angel and Benedict the heavy (or vice versa in some circles) only says more about us than about the men.

    The lesser part of me can’t wait until Francis makes an inconvenient announcement, at least in the eyes of the media–like indeed, the Church is against gay marriage and abortion or some such. Will the MSM still laud him? Or is he prepping some of them to be open to that message in a new way?

  • Ann

    Excellent article that I needed to read today…thank you!

    One quibble, though…Benedict, “standoffish?”. No, no no.
    Warm, friendly and joyful, but with a serene reserve and extreme courtesy.

  • Pingback: All Shook Up | On Pilgrimage

  • Heather King

    Right on, E! “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry”….as they say in Al-Anon, put down the magnifying glass and pick up the mirror…

  • les

    ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn

  • les

    sorry, didnt complete the comment..
    it seems to me that whatever type of Pope we have, it’s about superficiality rather than substance when it comes to dissatisfaction.

  • Peggy m

    Fwiw, I remember reading a journalist’s description of John Paul II’s bedroom in those palatial apartments. The furnishings were spare and simple. The bed was narrow and plain. It was positively monkish.

  • Zmama

    Anchoress-this is a wonderful piece. I especially loved the quote that begins “You didn’t like Peter in red shoes? Here is Peter in black…” but I was confused as to the source of this full quote. Is this from another piece you have written elsewhere (First Things perhaps?) or is this quote from another author. Either way I would love to read more if there is more to this quote. It perhaps best sums up my hopes for the way in which Pope Francis can challenge all of us.

    While we live in a modest home by today’s standards, after 14 years of marriage, one child, and the remnants of my parents’ belongings still stored in our house, Frnacis’ move into his 2 rooms brings back memories of my one small room during my post college volunteer service and the freedom having so few possessions to care for brought to me. I have been spending this month sorting and purging, in order to bless others with items that we do not truly need. One small step but when I get overwhelmed I am strengthened by our new Holy Father’s example.

  • Zmama

    Sorry for the typos. I am all thumbs on this I pad.

  • Stefanie

    Amen, Elizabeth!

  • Joe Odegaard

    Very hopeful article, thank you.

  • Hieronymus Illinensis

    Dear Anchoress, I hope it isn’t by drinking Starbucks you’re a coffee snob! Let it be Mystic Monk, please!

  • wild bill

    I don’t see or hear where people are getting the info that what Pope Francis is doing so many awful things by trying simplify his lifestyle. AS long as he can comunicate his message to the world and especially members of the Catholic church who cares? I don’t know where this comes from? Of course I am out in Portland Or a very secular place. I get my news from Public Radio, my local newspaper and the local eleven o clock news and there really hasn’t been much anywhere on the Pope since the novelty of his assuming the office and all the pagentry that goes with it wore off.

  • Amy

    I am so grateful a friend forwarded this to me! Beautifully written…and addressed so many things I have “worried” about. I thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Mark.

    John the Baptist fasted and therefore must have been possessed; Jesus ate and drank and must have been a drunkard and glutton. The pundits of the media won’t be happy with any Papal style either…

  • Pingback: Lenten Reflection Series: Live in Hope–Easter is Coming! | Fr. Charles Zlock

  • PD

    I too am so tired of the implicit shots being taken at Pope Benedict because of the admiration for humble Pope Francis. I do not believe that much of the world – even the Catholic world – understood Pope Benedict, the man and his teachings.

    JPII enjoyed the kind of admiration that Francis is receiving too, didn’t he? In his own way, I suppose. I am not willing to say there is anything necessarily wrong with that admiration. That said, plenty of saints and holy men and women go by without fanfare. St. Joseph comes to mind and, fittingly, this will likely be the way that Joseph Ratzinger will be ‘remembered’.

    Let it be so – God alone sees and knows us in full and it is His perception that counts ultimately.

    [Benedict seems content to be misunderstood for the sake of Christ and his church. A huge lesson in humility there, too -admin]

  • archangel

    I said it when he was elected and I’ll repeat it now… buckle up, it’s gonna get fun.

    What the “bishop of Rome” is showing us is that “trappings” are aptly named. They are traps. The essay above is one of the best I have read here. IMO, we are living the final Fatima message. PBXVI was the slumping pontif (NOT PJPII) at the helm amid the arrows of the press, the scandal within the church, and the world. PFI is the one who is now sailing the ship to the final shore. He is referring to himself a “Peter”. He KNOWS who and what he is. He is leading the church back to herself. We are to be a priestly people to eachother, without the trappings. The poor come in many guises… not just material. Ultimately the material does not matter. The fringes he spoke of in his homily today refers to the fringes of the soul. Anchoress is correct. Society has gotten what it has asked for. The church has gotten what it asked for. Each has essentially asked for “medicine”. Problem is we all know what medicine tastes like. Perhaps PFI’s countenance is the “teaspoon of sugar” to help it go down.

    Happy Easter

  • Chris-2-4

    “Pope Francis would not have been able to hold it at St. John Lateran because he has not yet taken possession of the basilica”

    Nonsense. He could celebrate anywhere he liked. Has he “taken possession of the prison”? Where is it written that the pope can not say a mass in a basilica that he has not “taken possession of”?

  • archangel

    St. John Lateran is the episcopal see of the Rome diocese. The “bishop of Rome” has not been officially installed. His installation mass occurs after Easter. PFI is “pope” but first and foremost he is the “bishop of Rome”.

    The joy of PFI is going to be the destruction of the “popular” notions that the papacy is some dictatorial position.

    “The captain has put the seat belt sign on. We are experincing some turbulance.” :)

  • Rob Federle

    Trying to use Francis’ simple life as a hammer against Benedict and the Church as a whole dovetails nicely with the current administration’s effort to create wedges all through society, in the church, in the nation between the rich and the poor… Another example of how widely the Hermaneutic of Rupture and Discontinuity have spread!

  • Rose Marie Isaac

    The way I see it: the Vatican’s PR department and Catholic blogdom is so happy to coast on all the good PR generated by Pope Francis for the Church (who can blame them) that instead of “humbly” downplaying his “humility” by saying that Pope Francis is doing no more than thousands of Jesuit priests all over the world who have taken a vow of poverty, and by pointing out that the papal apartment is no larger or smaller than an average apartment housing 6-7 people, thereby removing the implication that Benedict luxuriated in this space, they are happy to let the PR ride for all its worth. Benedict surely needs no defense in the eyes of the world which has judged him for over 40 years but the way in which the Cardinals, the Vatican and Catholic bloggers have rushed over the grave of his legacy for the past couple of weeks has disgusted me and turned me away completely. Charity is the last thing we have been experiencing from the institutional Church.

  • Pingback: Video: Pope Francis breaks with Maundy Thursday tradition, will wash feet of prisoners « Hot Air

  • Nathan

    Another Council? We haven’t even implemented the last Council correctly yet, why on Earth would he call another Council?

  • Karen Beattie

    Exactly! Poverty is very admirable when it’s about a leader who’s giving up something in order to have solidarity with the poor. But when it comes to being poor ourselves, or not having the choice to be poor, it’s a whole different story.