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Michelangelo’s Greek cross plan for Saint Peter’s basilica was skewed by the addition of a long nave designed and executed by Carlo Maderno in the early 17th century. This lengthy nave directs the visitor toward the tomb of Saint Peter and the papal altar designed later by Gianlorenzo Bernini with its imposing bronze canopy. That long overpowering space cries out for a procession, and visitors to the basilica, including myself, can attest that a procession is an event to behold.

At the appointed hour the vast bronze doors of the basilica opened to the sound of trumpets as the procession entered the nave of Saint Peter’s led by the cross bearer and his attendant acolytes while the Vatican choir thundered out a version of Tu Est Petrus — “Thou art Peter!” The stately procession featured in their distinctive robes the members of the Roman Rota, the canons of Saint Peter, the monsignori of the papal household, and a line of bishops and cardinals. Then came Pope Pius XII, wearing his triple tiara and being carried on the sedia gestatoria by members of the papal household, flanked by both the Noble Guards and the Palatine Guards in their faintly Napoleonic military gear as well as the halberd-bearing Swiss Guard.

As the huge congregation roared with applause, my companion, a country boy from Tennessee, looked at me and muttered: “The hell with Ringling Brothers, this is the greatest show on earth!”

The operative word in that homely observation was “show,” since that is precisely what was intended. The greater part of that papal panoply was devised in the 17th century, the era of the baroque, to demonstrate the power and prestige of the papacy as a polemical rebuke to the world of the Reformers. The basilica itself found its completion in the same century under the guiding genius of Bernini to exalt the papacy, whose roots were in the life and work of the Apostle Peter.

I was present at that papal liturgy more than 50 years ago. Subsequent popes after the time of Pope Pius XII began to chip away at some of the more extravagant elements of papal ceremonial. The triple tiara was relegated to the Vatican museums; the great ostrich feather fans carried near the sedia were consigned to the attic, as was, in time, the sedia itself, with Pope John Paul I being the last to be borne aloft on it. Pope Paul VI abolished both the Noble and Palatine Guard as part of his reform of the Vatican curia. Over the past six decades ceremonies in Saint Peter’s basilica began to look less like a celebration of an early modern monarchy and more like an elaborate Catholic liturgy executed at a splendid level.

What the pope can do, and Francis clearly moves in this direction, is to encourage an open dialogue within the Church to ask how the Gospel can best serve the urgent issues of the day.

In addition to those changes, the manner in which popes lived began to change. Pope Pius XII always dined in a somewhat austere solitary state. It was only after his death in 1958 that visitors were invited to attend Mass with the pope and guests were asked to the papal table for meals. Subsequent popes also began to trim the retinues of monsignori flanking their every step, and the increase in papal trips continued to diminish the distance between pope and people. I still remember the raised eyebrows when Pope John XXIII left the Vatican to visit the local Roman jail with the odd name of Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) and say Mass for the inmates. When Pope Francis did the same thing and, in addition, washed the feet of prisoners (including women and Muslims at that) the same disapproval occurred, only this time at the websites of the more-Catholic-than-the-pope crowd.

No pope of modern times has done more to demystify the baroque vision of the papacy than Francis. His way of doing things may reflect his own personal preference — he hardly led a regal lifestyle in Buenos Aires — but surely it is also a way of getting a point across. More than once he has spoken of his distaste for clerics who live too lavishly. Frequently he warns against seeing the clerical life as the working out of a career rather than the living out of a religious vocation. In his own somewhat pungent metaphor: The shepherd should carry the smell of the sheep. After his election as pope he decided not to live in the papal apartments but in a residence on the Vatican grounds where he could eat with his fellow residents before “going to work.”

These and similar small gestures help Catholics and others to see the role of the pope in a less magisterial way. Over the centuries, one can trace the slow but steady growth of papal power, but many “traditions” with which we identify the papacy are accretions that have only accidental significance. For instance, while today the pope alone is called “Vicar of Christ,” that title was once used by all bishops until the medieval period. Popes have lived at St. Peter’s only since the Middle Ages; before that the pope lived at his cathedral church, Saint John Lateran. One could multiply such instances of particularity.

Pope Francis likes to emphasize the title of “Bishop of Rome” when he refers to the office to which he has been elected. It is an accurate designation, because when one is elected as bishop of Rome one becomes pope. In the Catholic Church, the local bishop in union with all other bishops is in union with the Bishop of Rome. That Francis emphasizes his role as bishop indicates that he sees himself as a pastor both of the local church and as the head of the college of bishops of the universal church. Another way of saying this: Francis wants to be a bishop — a pastor — as a way of modeling what he wants to see in all the bishops.

The pope’s emphasis on the pastoral life of a bishop was reflected in his recent visit to the United States. Francis is a man of significant gestures. Surely the modest Fiat automobile was one small sign of change, but more telling was his insistence on visiting school children in Harlem, prisoners in Philadelphia, and indigent elderly in a home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. To the despair of his minders, he insisted on stopping processions to hold babies, embrace disabled persons and bless random spectators.

A change that struck many was the rhetorical style of his formal addresses. Papal speeches typically follow the so-called style of the curia, with many references to the pope’s “venerable predecessors” couched in formal language. Francis would have none of it. His speeches and sermons were straightforward and his themes constant: be merciful; have a mind for the disadvantaged; take the road of dialogue; foster love and not hate; search for the common good. And while he spoke in a somewhat stately but halting English to the U.S. Congress, in other conferences he used his native Spanish. That he spoke in Spanish, as some astute commentators noted, reminds us, however subtly, that the Catholic Church in this country increasingly takes on a Latin tinge. That Francis himself comes from the Latin South is telling not only for the shape of the papacy but of the emerging reality of the shape of the Catholic Church in this country.

Much of the press coverage in anticipation of and during the pope’s stay here eagerly sought for signs of “change” — would he make any revelatory hints about change on the hot button issues of divorce and remarriage, abortion, contraception, gay marriage? While these issues are paramount in the minds of many in this country, to expect such radical reorientations is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the papal office. It is fundamental to the nature of the papacy to conserve the faith, to preserve the unity of the Church. It is part of the papal ministry to hold fast to the Gospel, not to innovate.

Studies show that all great change in the history of the Church tends to filter up from below rather than coming from the top down. The radical changes brought about by Vatican II did not spring from the thinking in the Vatican but from urgent pastoral needs in the Church, which were discussed by thinkers, tried in experiments and seen by experience as needed, then thrashed out in debates and finally agreed to by the bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome.

What the pope can do, and Francis clearly moves in this direction, is to encourage an open dialogue within the Church to ask how the Gospel can best serve the urgent issues of the day. One anecdote from his American travels is quite telling. On the way back to Rome, Pope Francis held an impromptu press conference with the journalists aboard his plane. A French reporter remarked that, judging from the crowds and their reactions, the pope has become a “star.” Francis responded that he is not a “star” but the “servant of the servants of God.” He added that he loved to look at the night sky to ponder the stars, and he often saw “falling stars.” The gentle correction reminded his audience that publicity, no matter how favorable, often fades and falls. What is more interesting was his reach for that ancient title “servant of the servants of God.” First used by Pope Gregory the Great in the early seventh century, it later became a common descriptive title for the office of the papacy.

It strikes me that Francis means to instantiate the meaning of that ancient title into his ministry as pope. The Bishop of Rome is the keystone for the unity of the Church, and the pope can, when needed, instruct the Church. Just as often, however, he can be an aide, a mentor and an example for all the bishops, and Francis appears to function directly in that fashion.

Synods of bishops under John Paul II were basically meetings preordained by the direction of the Vatican curia, with almost nothing in the way of episcopal input. Francis operates differently. For the October Synod on the Family, he asked for information both from the bishops and their faithful, encouraging them to frank and open discussion (to borrow a term from Vatican II) in order to better serve the Church. He embraced that ancient understanding that the Church is both a teaching and a learning one.

When the Synod on the Family ended, no radical break from Catholic theology occurred, nor was any break to be anticipated. However, many pastoral problems in the Church concerning marriage and family life were fiercely debated, with answers not predetermined by curial officials in the Vatican. In his closing remarks, Francis reiterated his desire for synods in the future to contribute to the life of the Church. The word “synod,” after all, comes from two Greek words meaning “walking together.” Francis does not want a Church that speaks from the top down. His conviction is that he heads a Pilgrim Church, and everyone must listen to the Spirit who guides it.

photo: Stefano Spaziani

The careful remarks on the “problem” of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics urged discernment in how to treat the issue at a pastoral level. The implications of this seemingly innocuous conclusion are unknown: On a case-by-case basis, will this issue be resolved locally by a skilled confessor or a local bishop or without a legislative marriage tribunal?

Similarly, only the most naïve would have thought the synod would have endorsed gay marriage, since the constant tradition of the Church views marriage as a sacrament between a man and a woman. That the final wording of the synod on the issue of homosexuality was contested reflects the real tension between the bishops of the West and those who come from the developing world. The tension indicated that any strong view on this issue is premature and may demand, as some suggested, a study commission to investigate the matter further. Obviously, at this time and on this topic, the bishops of the world are not “walking together.”

It is clear that real divisions of opinion among the bishops at the synod on some disputed topics exist. It is equally clear that Pope Francis knew there would be such divisions. He wanted the bishops to take an open inquiry into the “signs of the time.” Some fear such openness can prove to be dangerous; it is hardly a secret that among some in the Vatican and in the group of more traditional bishops there is wariness verging on fear about the direction of Francis’ thinking. Francis, however, seems certain that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the Church and that the same Spirit for the Spirit, as Jesus says famously, like the wind, cannot be seen but blows where it will (see: John 3:8).


Lawrence S. Cunningham is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theology Emeritus at Notre Dame.


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