What has struck me the most about the new Pope is his reticence. Benedict XVI was as bewilderingly bejeweled in his prose as he was in his elaborate, fastidious outfits. Francis seems to be following his name-sake, who rarely preached as such, but whose actions spoke far louder than any Latin. “Spread the Gospel everywhere – if necessary with words” was the saint’s alleged remark. It was certainly his way of life, although I doubt Pope Francis will suddenly break out into a spiritual dance or song, as Saint Francis was wont to do.
And so Francis was of few and plain words, as he emerged at first: “Bueno Sera” before urging people to go to bed soon. He has simply let the ornate and elaborate vestments of his predecessor fall from his body, as Saint Francis did in renouncing his worldly inheritance from his father. He has spoken of the need to protect Creation from the forces of pure exploitation and greed; he has reiterated Jesus’ message to visit the sick in hospital and the incarcerated in prison. He has washed the feet of a Muslim female juvie. He has refused the Papal throne and its palatial residence. And he has done all this almost instantly. No words could have said as much.
The reaction from the arch-traditionalists, especially in Liturgical matters, has been just a notch short of outright hysteria. One of the new, young priests, who came of age under the counter-revolution of Wojtila and Ratzinger, registers his bafflement at the washing of women’s feet:
I am a young, recently ordained priest. Tonight, I planned on preaching about the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. How can I speak about such things – the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti – when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different?
I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, “I don’t have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don’t we just all do what we want.” How hard this is for young priests.
How hard for a young priest to have to grapple with the idea that in Christ, there is “neither male nor female.” Or that some Pharisaical rules, designed to protect the powerful, are what Jesus came to disarm with the power of love, outreach, and embrace of the other. No: what matters to this priest is that those who are selecti are viri, i.e. men, that the washing of the feet is about the supremacy of the male priesthood, not the humility of a God who places the last first and the first last. There is some awkward resistance from the Ratzinger faction as a whole:
“The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him,” noted conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, that Francis was setting a “questionable example” by simply ignoring the church’s own rules.
“People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them,” he said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”
The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women’s ordination.
There is no sign that Francis will move to end that ban – although what a day for the church that would be! There are signs rather that Francis wants to break out of the zero-sum dynamic of those issues for a while and reaffirm the central truths of the faith: that the force behind all of creation is love, that Jesus revealed this in his words and in his actions, that those who believe they have everything have nothing, and that those who are marginalized, poor, alone, afraid and vulnerable are by those very facts more capable of seeing God in the world. We have to become more like them to find Jesus, and less like ourselves.
This is a Pope who follows Jesus’ example by simply showing, not telling. Francis of Assisi is the obvious precedent. But this man is a Jesuit as well, an order founded by Saint Ignatius:
St. Ignatius had been a Basque soldier, as well as something of a ladies’ man, until his conversion while convalescing after a cannonball shattered his leg. In his writings, most notably in his “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius espoused a theology based on loving deeds rather than loving thoughts or words. St. Ignatius calls us not merely to worship Christ but to imitate him.
My italics. Deeds over words; love over law. In the end, the way a human being acts is what his or her religion is. And a spiritual leader can say so much more without words, because he is describing something beyond human understanding. In the washing of a young woman’s feet – from another universe of doctrine – you are witnessing the surrender of law to love. You are witnessing Jesus’ constant resurrection in our world – every day, somewhere, in someone, opening up to the sun, like flowers in springtime.
(Photo: Daffodils in front of St. Peter’s Basilica as final preparations are made before Pope Francis delivers his first ‘Urbi et Orbi’ blessing from the balcony of the Basilica during Easter Mass on March 31, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)