Pope Francis is a humble man, just like Benedict XVI

Pope Francis greets Benedict XVI at the Vatican in May (CNS)

Recently I read with relief that Pope Francis had ordered the removal of a statue which had been erected in his honour in the grounds of his former cathedral in Buenos Aires. My relief was due, not only to the predictably execrable taste of the artefact in question, but above all to the kind of signals the papal intervention was sending out. Indeed, Francis himself is reputed to have told the cathedral authorities that he didn’t want to encourage a cult of personality. This is entirely to his personal credit; it is also necessary for the well-being and mission of the Church as a whole.

Cults of personality are not always the direct result of the will of those who become their object. Blessed John Paul II was a pope of tremendous charismatic power, elected at a time when the stormy cultural and ecclesial conditions made many yearn for a more authoritative figure than the gentle but (according to some) vacillating Paul VI. The Polish pope travelled the world and reaffirmed the power of the Catholic vision, enthralling crowds by the very force of his personality. This was the method he used to give back confidence to a Church in which many were disorientated by an unprecedented whirlwind of change, while others were vociferously demanding that the pace of change be hastened. His pontificate may be seen as a case of what Blessed John Henry Newman called “changing in order to stay the same”. But many in the Church – including many of those who welcomed the defence of traditional doctrine – were uneasy that enthusiasm for the pope’s personality was, in the course of an unusually long reign, obscuring a proper understanding of the role of the office and hindering the appreciation of his message.

This may have been one reason why the cardinals chose Joseph Ratzinger, the shy and rather un-charismatic “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord”, to replace his predecessor. Ratzinger’s understated style would have seemed for many to augur a restful respite, unlikely to generate a cult of personality. I believe that this was one reason why Benedict XVI reinstated some of the outward signs of office which John Paul II had dropped. He wanted to remind us that the office of the papacy, as teacher of the Church and centre of her unity, is more important than the personality of its holder.

With the advent of Francis, the trappings are once more pruned back, and indeed more drastically than before. The intention, however, appears to be the same. Francis may believe that the perceived “pomp” surrounding Benedict XVI undermined his desire to re-direct the focus away from the person. My hunch is that he is also simply being himself. But there are also signs that he intends to reform the exercise of the papal office. Far from being immovably fixed, as many Catholics seem to think, the manner in which the primacy is exercised has evolved throughout history. Throughout the second millennium, the popes were seen and acted as temporal rulers, as well as spiritual leaders and teachers. It may be to emphasise this latter, essential role that the new Pope is happy to follow his instincts and dispense with inessential trappings.

To give but one example, Francis prefers to use the term Bishop of Rome, rather than Pope, in his official signatures, as well as his speeches. As Robert Bolt has Thomas More say in A Man for all Seasons, this changes nothing in his authority. But it is a reminder to Catholics and other Christians that the authority claimed by popes rests upon their occupancy of the See of the Fisherman. Peter received the primacy because he spoke for the whole Church by proclaiming his faith in the Son of God at Caesaria Philippi, and shed his blood for that faith in Rome. The Pope is the servant of the faith, and not its master.

What Francis does not intend, we may be sure, is that these signs of humility be used to belittle his predecessors and their legacy. I am tired of hearing it implied that the present Pope’s simplicity and humility are in contrast to the supposed arrogance and luxurious lifestyle of his predecessors. Francis himself has publicly paid tribute to Benedict’s humility several times, and I think it is time to set the record straight. Let me quote a few examples.

Francis’s decision to live at the Casa Santa Marta has been attributed to his eschewing of luxury, with the implication that his predecessors embraced it. In fact, the papal apartments are certainly large and grandiose, but to call them luxurious is laughable. They look to me rather cavernous and uncomfortable, containing few or none of the creature comforts sought after by contemporary, materialistic culture. In any case, Francis tells us that he forsook the apartments not to escape luxury, but to avoid isolation (and we might speculate that he did so also in order to evade an excessive control on the part of his entourage over who has access to him).

The insidious contrasts become comic when we read at that the Pope now lives in what is basically a “cheap hotel”, where he can “have breakfast with ordinary people”. In fact, the Casa Santa Marta is a rather plush (though certainly not five star) lodging house for prelates. I doubt if the clerical hoi polloi like myself would be able to get a room there now, even if we could afford it.
As to the life they led within the Vatican, recent popes have been models of frugality by all accounts. I remember an English bishop who was invited to a working dinner with John Paul II. He starved himself at lunchtime to leave room for the sumptuous meal he was expecting. On his return to the seminary in which he was staying, he was obliged to raid the fridge, having been regaled with scarcely more than a bowl of soup and a boiled egg. Benedict’s regimen was equally un-princely, I am told. His preferred luxury was a can of Fanta, and his meals were taken briskly and in the company of only his immediate household.

When 200 homeless people were received to dinner at the Vatican, some of the purveyors of odious comparisons were publicly in awe of Francis’ humility and charity. They had perhaps been too busy to notice that he was merely repeating a gesture his two immediate predecessors had made before him. Or not quite. In 2010, Benedict XVI received 250 homeless people to lunch, and passed in person at every table before sitting down at one of them to take his meal with his guests. Francis sent a cardinal to represent him. Let us not make odious comparisons in our turn, but the narrative of the humble new broom who is sweeping away the “Renaissance court” of the immediate past needs to be exposed as the manipulation it is.

Why am I telling you all this? Is it because I want to blow the trumpet for the Pope Emeritus and talk down his successor? In fact, the reason is quite simply that I fear that Francis’s desire to avoid a cult of personality may be frustrated – paradoxically – by those who use his gestures for a purpose which is surely not the Pope’s. His desire to reform the Church cannot be furthered by presenting him as a charismatic re-founder of the papacy determined to sweep away existing doctrine and praxis in favour of an ideological interpretation of what it is to be a “Church of the poor”. He has subtly sent out signals to indicate that he values and intends to preserve his successor’s legacy, but perhaps they need to become a little less subtle.

And let me recall a gesture of humility whose historic significance has, I think, yet to sink in. In March 2009 Benedict XVI sent a public letter to the world’s bishops in response to the “Williamson affair”. The pope admitted that a mistake had been made, took responsibility for it, and apologised. I am unaware of any pope in history making such a gesture. John Paul II asked pardon for the sins of the Church in the past, Benedict XVI went a step further by admitting publicly that he himself had made an error and asking pardon.

In fact, he was taking the rap for the incompetence of his underlings (in a manner, let it be said, which his contemporaries in business and politics are only too keen to avoid). I believe that this totally unprecedented act was more than a gesture, and that it opened up new horizons in the exercise of the Roman primacy. It made it clear that infallibility, whatever it does mean, is not a divinely gifted exemption from making mistakes. The potential fruits, both ecumenical and in terms of the internal life of the Church, may yet be incalculable.

All popes make mistakes. All popes bring strengths and weaknesses to the task. To reform the Church, Pope Francis needs to bring decisiveness and determination to bear within the rickety machine of the Vatican. He needs a gentle strength, and a humble sureness. As we seek to avoid the pitfalls of the cult of personality, the Church needs discernment on his part in the choice of gestures, and caution on our part in the way we allow them to be interpreted. Let us try to assist him by our loyalty and our prayers.

Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He has studied and ministered in Rome, France and Greece. He is a researcher specialising in theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 9/8/13