Of course that detail has resonance. The implicit rebuke to the Liberace of Popes, Benedict XVI, is somehow not disrespectful, yet obvious. Saint Francis refused to ride on a horse. It gave him, as far as he was concerned, too much haughtiness, too much power over others, too much visibility. He would walk, and if he needed a way to transport things with him, he used a donkey. For a while, Franciscans followed this stricture carefully, while eventually the norm became that Franciscans could ride on donkeys, never horses, if they really couldn’t walk. And the legend has it that on his death-bed, Francis thanked his donkey for his long service and that the donkey wept.
Jesus’ celebrated arrival in Jerusalem, when the crowds that would soon call for him to be tortured to death were throwing palm fronds at his feet, was on a donkey. Here we had the Son of God insisting on making a paradoxical entrance – on the lowliest creature. “Lowly Yet Chosen” as Pope Francis put it in his first statement. And so we hear more and more stories of his insistence on an absence of pomp, of not placing the priesthood or even the papacy on a lofty pedestal, getting on the same bus as is fellow cardinals, paying his own bills at a local hotel, telling his fellow Cardinals to wear black rather than Benedict’s fabulous scarlet near-burlesque.
For much of my time in high school, I rode the public bus every day. I went to what Americans would call a “magnet school” which was a long way, in an English sense, from my home. For close to seven years, I spent two and a half hours a day on that lumbering vehicle, wending its way with painful slowness through the darkness of the English winter or the absurd green orgasm of every spring. And I think there is something valuable about that simple public exposure, day after day, that reminder that you are not better than anyone else, that if there’s no seat available, you stand, that if an old or infirm or pregnant person gets on the bus, you offer them your seat, that the strangers you stare at have lives you will never fully know – unless a conversation happens to begin, or a stranger on the same bus every day becomes a kind of unknowable friend. I can still close my eyes and see faces I would see at various stops along the way. We were English so mere nods of recognition sufficed.
This is one reason I love Catholicism: its human and cultural catholicity.
The parishes I’m drawn toward are sprawling, diverse, different congregations. I never wanted to go to a gay mass, although I respect those who choose to. For me, it was the lack of uniformity that grabbed me. To walk to communion behind a student or a construction worker or a Latino immigrant or a pregnant mother or a gay senior or an old lady in a veil is to experience the sheer, glorious wounded mess of humanity – walking to be healed by the Body of Christ. I deeply believe this is integral to Christianity – a lack of hierarchy, an insistence that what the world elevates is not what matters, that the first shall be last, and the last first. Letting go of the notion that you are worth more or less than anyone else, accepting your physical fate as dust, and embracing humanity without borders or labels – as the Samaritan did in the parable, as Francis did with lepers, as Mychal Judge and Jorge Bergoglio did in washing the feet of people with AIDS – this is Christianity.
It wounds me to see so many young people think of it as the opposite (and not without reason). A hierarchy determined to defend its privilege and prestige even at the expense of raped children, a Pope almost disappeared in his own regalia, a stream of statements ostracizing a group of human beings – gays – and refusing even to listen to the perspective of half of humanity, women: this is what Francis inherited, and he was not free of it. But the new name gives new hope and points in a new direction.
Perhaps the answer is to get back on the bus again. And in one of her most poignant posts yet, Judith O’Reilly responded to the new Pope by doing just that:
Why did I feel I had to ride this bus this morning? Because I wanted to know why a cardinal did not ride in a leather-seated, tinted-windowed limo though the streets of Buenos Aires, but chose instead to travel among the faithful and less-than-faithful, bumping and swaying, the wheels on the bus going round and round. What did Jorge Mario Bergoglio get from those bus-rides around the city? Stories? Comfort? Warmth? An understanding what it is to work hard, to be tired, to be lonely, to have to stand when you want to sit, to know you are going home or going far away? Maybe too, I wanted to get on the bus, any bus, because we are on our own journeys and right now at least so far as faith goes, I don’t know where I am heading. Maybe, I thought, if I catch a bus like a Pope, I’ll arrive at a destination called Faith.
And maybe we will.
(Painting: Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, Giotto).