Why Pope Francis inspires us
Opinion: He has washed his socks and knows the face of poverty
‘Pope Francis does not want to be admired. This “son of the Church” wants people to look again at the figure who inspires him, and take seriously the challenge of following that lead.’ Pope Francis Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio stepped on to the balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square a year ago and stood stiffly to attention for what seemed an age, my heart sank. How was he going to cope with his new role?
When he greeted everyone with a simple “good evening”, and asked them to pray for and bless him, my shoulders came down about three inches. This was new. This was different. This was very, very good. He had just stepped in the shoes of the fisherman, Peter, and now held an enormous responsibility to protect that heritage, and to hand it on. At that moment, he chose to emphasise collegiality by calling himself the Bishop of Rome.
His commitment to collegiality was clear, too, in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium , from the number of times he cited regional or national bishops’ conferences – the Latin American bishops more than 14 times, the US and French bishops twice, but also references to documents written by the bishops’ conferences of India, Brazil, the Philippines, the Congo and the European Bishops’ Conference.
This is unprecedented in any papal exhortation. In other words, he is reflecting on and learning from what his fellow bishops have written, rather than assuming that all knowledge flows outward from the centre.
Francis says it explicitly, too, in Evangelii Gaudium , talking about a “sound decentralisation”. Nine out of the 16 new cardinals he appointed are from the global south and Asia; including some of the poorest countries such as Haiti and Burkina Faso, while five are from Latin America.
Again, too, his so-called C8, his small kitchen cabinet of cardinals, who range from conservative to more liberal, includes men from across the world.
One of the most interesting appointments has been that of Cardinal George Pell, as prefect of the new Secretariat for the Economy. Few people who know of this tough-minded Australian tend to feel neutral about him – they either love him for his trenchant espousal of orthodoxy or dislike him for the same reason. But no one doubts his ferocious honesty and his ability to get a job done.
Robert Mickens, writing in the Tablet , describes this new secretariat as “the biggest structural change to the Roman Curia in nearly half a century. Francis has given the new ministry ‘oversight for the administrative and financial structures and activities’ in all sectors of the Vatican and the Holy See.”
Pope Francis had already instituted substantial reform of the so-called Vatican Bank, a source of continuing scandal for many faithful Catholics.
But this is all about much more than efficient accountancy, or even accountability. It is about priorities.
Francis is fundamentally committed to a church of the poor. In a meeting with students of Jesuit schools he talked about poverty being “the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures”.
There is now more than a century of radical social teaching from the church on the economy, and how it must serve human beings. Pope Benedict was possibly even more radical than Francis in his critique of capitalism. But Francis brings something that we do not associate with the pope – the sense that he has made his own meals and washed his own socks. In fact, he has washed the socks of many others, because when he was a Jesuit provincial in Argentina, he often loaded and unloaded the washing machine.
‘Priest of the streets’
Big deal, you might say. That’s what most people do every day.
But he also was what he himself has described as a “priest of the streets”. He knows how people live, and he knows what the face of poverty is like.
He has sold many of the gifts that have come to him, including the famous Harley Davidson, and given the money to the poor. He did the same in Buenos Aires, according to the Daily Telegraph , citing an old friend of his, an internationally famous silversmith, Argentinian Juan Carlos Pallarols.
When Bergoglio was archbishop, if he received gifts of gold or silver, he would bring them to Pallarols to be melted down so that the money could be given anonymously to priests working with the poor.
Pope Francis is an inspirational figure for many, not because he courts popularity, but because he is so clear in his identity as a Christian, and as the “servant of the servants of God”, one of the lesser known titles of the pope.
But he does not want to be admired. This “son of the church” wants people to look again at the figure who inspires him, and take seriously the challenge of following that lead.
As he has said: “The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”
Francis’s passionate commitment to the poor, and to a church of the poor, stems from a passionate commitment to the message of the founder of the church.