Where a leading figure lives is always important, for his or her house tells us a great deal about their character. One might call this “architectural diplomacy”. Louis XIV built the Chateau of Versailles as the embodiment of his absolutist rule. Until then, French kings had lived a peripatetic life, in the capital, in the Île-de-France and in the Loire valley; Versailles changed all that, and no French king or emperor ever dared to live there after the Revolution, a sign that the static remote era of monarchy was now over.
Elizabeth II is closely associated with her various country houses, such as Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral, and this is the character she projects: somewhat frugal with regard to personal comforts, and devoted to horses, dogs and country life.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, clearly understands the concept of the “residence as gesture”, as one of his first acts as Pope was to abandon the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, as well as the annual holidays in Castel Gandolfo.
The papal apartment looked rather uncomfortable, from photographic evidence, and though full of big rooms, hardly homely or comfortable, more a place of work than some sort of luxury pad.
Previous popes had free access to the Vatican gardens, as did everyone else with the easily obtainable permission. Back in the day, it was possible to bump into the pope, or at least see him in the distance, if you obtained a ticket to the gardens at a time when the pope was taking his daily exercise. One thing popes never had (and in this they resembled Louis XIV) was privacy.
As for the Casa Santa Marta, where the present Pope lives, that too is hardly private, being a casa del clero, a lodging house for numerous clergy, though the Pope has a whole floor of the building for his own use, and the use of his immediate collaborators.
His living in the Casa Santa Marta has been interpreted as a move to a less ostentatious style of living, though this is an overly simplistic interpretation. But we live in an age of soundbites, and an era in which the simplistic can pass itself off as the simple.
Given the short-circuiting of so much of what should be our public conversation, the advent of Donald Trump on the world stage presents us with a figure who seems the absolute opposite of Pope Francis. Thanks to the Daily Mail, we can now get a look at where Mr Trump and his wife and 10-year-old son live.
The pictures are astonishing. As with Louis XIV, they are designed to project a particular image, one assumes one of wealth and power. The style, reminiscent of the palaces of Saddam Hussein, and the style known as Louis Farouk, must give us all pause.
Has the coming of Trump changed the game? From now on, is humility, or at least restraint, no longer going to make a good impression? Are we entering a new era of glitz, glamour and showmanship? Is St Francis no longer to be our admired patron? Should we rather think in terms of Liberace? If so, what should be the Church’s response? If we are indeed returning to an era of conspicuous consumption (or perhaps that era never went away), the challenges for Christianity are many.
Of all the virtues that the disciple of Jesus is called to cultivate, humility remains one of the hardest to explain and one of the most difficult to live out. It has often been deformed and abused in the life of the Church, used as a weapon to silence inconvenient voices, who have been told to shut up on the grounds that silence is humble and speaking out is a sign of pride. The cult of humility can be used to provide cover for abuses, and to deflect calls for accountability.
But humility should not be confused with servility or deference. It perhaps should best be thought of as a form of affability and approachableness. A humble person is the sort of person who will speak to anyone. There is a revealing line in St John’s Gospel: “At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman.” (John 4: 27a). Well, they should not have been, because Jesus clearly talked to everyone. That was part of his humility, and the reason that so many flocked to Him: they knew they would not be rejected.
We need, perhaps now more than ever, to preach humility, even to rebrand it, because it may well be more needed than ever.