The National Catholic Review

Good day from Rome on the second day of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Style is substance in these first hours of Francis’ reign; the talk here is about all things sartorial: What is he wearing? What is he not wearing? As The New York Times reported yesterday, Pope Francis asked the cardinals to wear just a simple black cassock under their albs for yesterday's Mass in the Sistine chapel.Meanwhile, Gamarelli’s, the official papal tailor (just a stone’s throw from my window) were disappointed to learn that the new pope has declined the use of the ermine mozetta they provided him and that he has ditched the traditional red shoes for the brown loafers he brought from Argentina.

Now one could dismiss all of this talk about clothes as just so much irrelevant claptrap if it weren’t for the fact that Catholicism is rooted in a sacramental worldview. In other words, symbols matter to us. They matter a lot. The cassock, the cape, the shoes, they’re all symbols. Francis seems to know that; he knows that these early choices about seemingly trivial matters are setting the tone of his pontificate. The fashion-conscious Romans, for whom a trip to the grocery store is a sashay down the runway, are paying close attention to Papa Frank’s aesthetic. They see in it some clues to what might happen on Tuesday, the day of the pope’s installation as Bishop of Rome. Much of the rite is already prescribed in the liturgical books, of course, but many here expect to see some innovation, all in the direction of greater simplicity and humility of spirit.

I am also wondering what to make of it all. I will be here for Tuesday’s inaugural mass, in which I will be one of the priests helping to distribute communion. I’ve been searching all of Rome for a cassock that fits me (I am tempted to think that the 6’ 4” Roman hasn’t been born yet). A recent, pre-resignation decree from the Vatican stipulated that all priests and religious must wear a cassock when taking part in papal liturgies. Now, however, I’m wondering whether that still holds. I suppose it does, but we’ve had a lot of surprises this month.

In any event, it would not be too much to say that Romans are falling in love with their bishop. And not just Romans. I met an English couple this morning who had walked across the city just to meet the tailor who made the new pope’s cassock. “We’re fascinated,” they said. “This is all so magical.”

Are you? Is it?

I know; it’s all so silly.

And yet… it isn’t.

Comments

David Smith | 3/16/2013 - 5:16am

It's been said that Francisco/Bergoglio is a man of small gestures. That's good, but from a pope, it can't suffice. If the gesture's not explained, and if it doesn't resonate with large numbers of people, it can be almost purely personal. The media - which didn't exist in the twelfth century - are fully capable of making a mockery of saintly humility, and the people, alas, will mimic the media. Without Benedict's verbal eloquence, Francis's eloquent gestures can evaporate into triviality.

Bill Mazzella | 3/15/2013 - 9:54pm

So many of us have been saying that the medieval look of the leaders of the church has worn very thin. Francis seems to understand this.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 3/15/2013 - 8:44pm

Yes, symbols are indelible to Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. Jesus used lots of symbolic imagery in his teaching, very ordinary stuff, like wheat and grapes intrinsically different, yet compatible and non-conflictual one to the other, unlike the constitutionally combative relationship existing between water and oil. These two ordinary elements of earth although ever at war so to speak, are in symbol sacramentally salvific, the marginalized, the “humble” as scripture says, speaking of “victory!” God at work in most unexpected ways, like in an insect, uncommon to an area, a Praying Mantis, unexpectedly there, ever in it kneeling position as if at prayer, just in time when prayer fatigue brings discouragement and then the words of Jesus, come to mind, “Pray always and do not lose heart” like the Praying Mantis seemingly ever at prayer! Signs and symbols and wonders gifts from on high!

Yes, simple signs, ordinary stuff, plain white cassock, in-ornate pectoral cross, brown loafers, not red shoes, cardinals in black cassocks, no throne-like seat, just a same-level standing position and more to come. Vatican functionaries scratching their heads, wondering what ever happened to the “good old days” bewildered perhaps at what “Papa Pancho” may do next!

Pope Francis I understands that there is something that doesn’t sit right, when the Vicar of Christ is finely attired with all kinds of royal trimmings, while the One whose Vicar he is, at birth was wrapped in swaddling clothes, hung naked on a cross with a loin cloth wrapped around his lower extremities, and who was also in death wrapped in a shroud and buried in somebody else’s tomb, having spent his life with no place to rest his head, unlike foxes that have dens and even birds who have nests. Every aspects of the Lord’s life symbolically messaged in simplicity. That’s wonderful! Awesome!

Z
So yes, fancy ecclesiastical clothing is absolutely optional and our new Jesuit Pope is acknowledging this. Like Pope Kiril in “Shoes of the Fisherman,” remember that movie? Well, let’s not get carried away now! But who knows? I find this Jesuit Pope very satisfying, a wholly holy inspiration.

Carolyn Disco | 3/15/2013 - 5:54pm

All the finery is not "magical" to me, but a turn-off. Put the ermine mozettas, cappa magnas, red shoes, etc. away. They resonate to me of a self-referential papal culture, even if that is not the intent.

When Pope Francis came on the balcony unencumbered by fancy vestments, bowed and asked for prayers from the people before blessing them, and showed a sensitivity to those in the crowded square and streets, much to my surprise, I found some tears on my face.

Welcome to a tone of "greater simplicity and humility of spirit"!

Anne Chapman | 3/15/2013 - 6:51pm

Although I have a number of concerns about the new pope, and will "wait and see", it is very refreshing to know that he seems to put a high priority on Matthew 25 and that he doesn't just talk - his lifestyle in Argentina is a very powerful signal that his will not be an "imperial" papacy marked by displays of material wealth, power, and privilege. Similarly his actions and gestures, his choice of the language of the people instead of the traditional Latin of the church elites and powerful, and the choice of clothing is a very positive sign that this may again become a church whose leadership will more closely emulate Jesus the carpenter and not Constantine the emperor.

The church is expert in understanding the importance of sign and symbol and those he is sending give hope to even my hardened heart - in spite of his weakness in clinging to certain teachings. As someone noted elsewhere, given the pool of candidates, he may be the best that could have been hoped for.