Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Humble Pope in An August Office

By John Lloyd

Note: This commentary was first published June 25, 2023 by Reuters.

The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis' five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday.

The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that "the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed."

Later, it was reported that Francis had privately dismissed the event with a brusque, "I'm not a Renaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working." Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man's style.

He has declared an end to the Papal Gentlemen, an office which, reformed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78), became an institution whose often aristocratic members officiated at public ceremonies, with their main duty being to meet and greet distinguished visitors. Reports quote the pope's belief that they were "archaic, useless, even damaging."

That last may refer to a sex scandal allegedly involving Angelo Balducci, a "Gentleman" who is claimed to have been soliciting male lovers through connections in the Vatican. This, in turn, may be part of the reason why Francis — again, in private — lamented the presence of a "gay mafia" in high places.

He recently prevailed on the French ambassador to Rome, Alain LeRoy, to greatly simplify a dinner for the Italian members of the Legion d'Honneur. Each guest had a papal note by his plate warning that "food wasted is food stolen from the poor." He has told his bishops not to act like princes; lives in the Vatican hotel, not in the magnificent papal suite; and has repeatedly spoken of living life "as a gift, not as a treasure to be kept to ourselves."

There's substance as well as style here — substance based on a calculation. In the early years of last century, Europe's Catholics — living in a relatively wealthy part of the world, even if many were poor — accounted for 65 percent of the world's 300 million. Today, Europe has 24 percent of the 1.1 billion worldwide Catholics — with Latin America, the Asia Pacific region and especially sub-Saharan Africa showing rapid growth. Poverty is an often tangible part of everyday Catholic life; a fact that Francis believes contradicts the luxury of cardinals' and archbishops' palaces and the concentrated magnificence of the Vatican.

He has been a harsher critic than his immediate predecessors of the sins of capitalism. Commenting on the collapse of the Bangladeshi sweatshop in May, where some 400 workers died, he said that "not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!" Receiving new ambassadors to the Holy See in May, he warned against "a return to the golden calf" and "the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal."

It's a world away from the scholarly, introverted style of Benedict XVI for whom the scandals and pressures of the Vatican finally became too much to bear. It's closer to the expressive, even crowd-pleasing style of Pope John Paul II, but it's much more militantly humble.

There is some risk in Francis' strategy. There's an argument that a display of power and wealth are needed especially for poor men and women, who wish to belong to a powerful institution led by great men wearing gorgeous garments.

But the pope's efforts are also shrewd. His warnings against the "dictatorship of an economy… lacking any truly humane goal" align with the feeling of many across the world.

In Italy, Francis has found a stroke of luck. A humbled Silvio Berlusconi. His predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, had a hedonistic Italian prime minister to deal with. In Benedict's papacy (2005-2012), Berlusconi was beset with sex and other scandals, about which the papacy largely stayed silent because Berlusconi was a lesser evil than a pro-secular left.

But that silence came at the cost of distress on the part of many Catholics. Berlusconi isn't gone, but earlier this week he was convicted of paying for sex with a minor, and abusing his office and given a seven-year sentence. Lengthy appeals make it all but certain he won't go to jail. But, already appealing other convictions, he won't be back as prime minister either. The Vatican's moral/immoral dance of the past years will no longer need to be danced by Francis, who seems to be further from Berlusconi's personality than any man in Italy.

Yet, if kicking out the Papal Gentlemen and ducking the concert are large gestures, delivering on the substance of his humility agenda will be much harder for Francis. The papacy is not a government of any more than the few hundred souls within the Holy See. While Catholic social teaching is long on ideas, it has no better idea of how to cope with present crises than political parties of the left or right.

Francis has to inspire his priests with the zeal to re-convert their often semi-detached flocks into activists for radical social change. He must avoid the excesses of leftism, yet not collapse into mere populism. He must identify the Church with programs of poverty alleviation. He must develop practical answers to the unemployment of the young (maybe as pastoral assistants, aids to aged parishioners or menders of crumbling churches). He must be present at policy discussions on the economy and he must give social teaching some realist underpinning. The Catholic Church has a great many men (it's chosen to marginalize women, for the most part) of high intelligence, of whom Francis, a Jesuit, is one. Let them bend their minds to address poverty's constant companion — unemployment.

The choral part of Beethoven's Ninth, the symphony Francis missed, proclaims that "All men will be brothers!" Easier sung than done. Perhaps it was better for the pope to stay at his desk than be discouraged by the height of the hill he has decided to climb.

John Lloyd is co-foundeder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

Related Off-site Links:
Pope Francis and a Holy, Humble Break from Tradition — Jena McGregor (The Washington Post, March 29, 2013).
The Servant PopeThe Wild Reed (March 28, 2013).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Waiting for Francis to Reform the Curia? He Already Has
Francis Criticized Vatican at Conclave; Warned Bishops of the "Dangers of Stagnation"
Reflections on a New Face
Francis the 'Slum Pope': Jorge Mario Bergoglio Remembered for Ministering to Buenos Aires' Poorest
Questions from a 'Dirty War'


  1. "I'm not a Renaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working." Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man's style.

    Is his style to be rude. I wonder what the muscians who practiced and "worked" hard to prepare for the performance think of such a comment?

    If I were a muscian I would like it if my pastor came to see what I did for a living.

  2. How is choosing not to attend a concert a sign of rudeness? After all, Francis let it be known that he wasn't attending due to "an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed." He puts his work above the pleasures of a concert. Again, how is this being rude? As pope, and as an individual, isn't he free to make such decisions? I'm sure lots of people would like the pope to come and see what they do for a living, but that's rather unrealistic. And if we moan and complain about him not choosing to see us at our work, isn't that being rather selfish?

  3. Quite frankly, I discount opinions which need to be submitted "anonymously". If you have an opinion, at least have the courage of your convictions to be known for them. The concert was NOT intended for the Pope's enjoyment only. Hence, the rest of the audience received what they came for and the musicians, their justly due adulations.
    Did Jesus appear just to be seen, to be praised, held up as more worthy or valued than the next person ? The answer is "NO". Even when He was confronted by the fact that His family was waiting for Him as He chose to continue teaching - with the words "Who is my mother, brother, sister, etc." He made the point that whoever does the work of establishing the kingdom of God is His family. He would not be forced by anyone - family included - to do what THEY thought He should do - to be pigeon holed. Had He allowed this, salvation history would never been accomplished - for as we know - his apostles, disciples, etc. continually tried to stir Him away from controversy and the Cross. Francis I is truly humble - he images Christ in doing so. With a Church struggling due to the corruption under Benedict VI and others before him, he made not his choice but the choice he felt Christ expected of him - service over pleasure. It is my opinion that the college of cardinals followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit in electing this servant shepherd as they did with John Paul II and John XXIII. With Benedict, his election was corrupted by the desire to reward him for years of service. Under his reign the Church was hurt and brought to its knees - by the Holy Spirit in exposing the hierarchy as mere men who should be serving not be served. Francis I is attempting by sincere attitude and pattern to set an example for bishops, priests, religious - that the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ united with ALL PEOPLE - not just Christians. It is with the people that that Holy Spirit dwells, inspires and guides - it is from the people that our clerics need take their lead (Acts of the Apostles). So, before casting a "stone" in judging Francis I as rude - consider his words and actions - and look in the mirror. None of us, I feel, have his courage, humility, Christ like demeanor. Namaste...

  4. First, "Francis I is truly humble" You have no idea if he is humble. Humility is a virtue that resides in the soul. His acts may look humble but they may result from spiritual pride. I have no idea if he is humble or not, nor does anyone else. If you are going to rebuke me, at least make it on solid theological ground.

    Second,it is rude not to show up for an appointment. Now the pope may have had a very good reason for not showing up. Now my post was in response to the article. If the pope did make the quip concerning being a renaissance pope, then his action is manifestly rude. What must the muscians be thinking?. Is their craft for renaissance princes? I think not.

    Third, you write, "Quite frankly, I discount opinions which need to be submitted "anonymously". If you have an opinion, at least have the courage of your convictions to be known for them." I can never understand why anyone on a blog would insist that being anonymous is somehow a bad thing, as if one is courageous for posting on blog. You apparently have no idea what courage is.

    1. I must say it is ignorant and stupid to assume that someone is being rude for not showing up to a concert as if they were sick kids not being waited on or something.

  5. Except, of course, when you are the person of honor. Thank you for the compliment by the way.