There has been a great amount of enthusiasm subsequent to the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the chair of St. Peter. This enthusiasm has been generated as a result of a number of his actions that seem to suggest a desire to embrace a life of simplicity even as he occupies a position that has long been associated with pomp, luxury and power.
As welcome as these actions may be in the context of the way in which the Vatican has worked, there is need to be cautious about the manner in which the same actions are interpreted outside of this immediate context. As I will go on to argue, a blind imitation of the Papal embrace of poverty and simplicity could in fact work against the very poor and disempowered that Pope Francis seems to seek to privilege.
Two particular choices that Pope Francis made did not go unnoticed by the world. The first was his opting to not wear the ermine lined mozzetta (the red-hued cape) when he made his first appearance, and secondly his preferring to wear his black shoes, rather than the traditional red shoes of Popes past. These two actions have been among others that have been hailed as a non-European Pope’s indication of his rejection of what are seen as outdated, and European, symbols of the Papacy. In the context of the continuing contestations around the meaning of the II Vatican Council, it is possible that these actions will be seen as a Papal approval of the discarding of earlier traditions of the Church and making space for vernacular cultures. While making space for vernacular cultures is an action that should be welcomed, we should take care to ensure that the vernacular does get swallowed by the national. Furthermore, we should eschew any moves that suggest that all older traditions of the Church are colonial European relics and have no space in decolonized space. Too often this has been the case with the Church, especially in India (and Goa is no exception but in fact an exemplar of the rule), where older traditions of the Church have been cast aside as colonial and instead of promoting the vernacular culture that has digested European introductions into local culture, symbols that are in conformity with national (i.e. upper caste Hindu) culture have been introduced.
What needs to be recognized, not just for India, but in places as diverse as Africa and Latin America, is that the “European” is welcomed by the disenfranchised and those outside of power. This European-ness, is welcomed not because of some self-loathing, and Euro-aping fetish of the majority of these populations, but because the European is the de facto culture of power. It is the nuances of this culture which ensures that these people can move outside of their poverty and disenfranchisement. One need only take the example of so many working (and other) class Goans, Catholic or otherwise, who have managed to better their lives essentially through their adoption of European manners, and European passports. What is perverse about the rejection of European-ness is that all too often, these projects are enthusiastically supported by upper-class elites whether within the Church or outside of it, who maintain their European manners, even while the wish the lower-classes to live without them.
Another papal action that has stirred the world is Pope Francis’ rejection of the luxury of the papal apartments, and his opting to stay in the relative modesty of a suite in the Vatican hotel for visiting prelates, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. It is the relative modesty of the suite in Domus that must necessarily be stressed, for it drives home the fact that this poverty that Pope Francis adopts is in the context of the overwhelming luxury that characterises the papal suites. The suite in the Domus is still a far cry from the poverty of St. Francis, or indeed much of the world’s poor. Indeed, it is the relative poverty of Cardinal Bergoglio’s choices even when he was Archbishop in Buenos Aires that must also be stressed.
I make this argument to recognize the relativity of Pope Francis’ actions because too often, the actions of persons like Pope Francis are used to justify, rather than fight poverty. Rather than challenge the structures and situations that cause poverty, the papal actions will be used to encourage the poor to accept their fate, and the miserable handouts that come their way. In a world that is disfigured by poverty, it needs to be stressed that beauty and luxury were created for a purpose. They should be seen as gifts from God, and as such are both earthly visions of paradise. The challenge must therefore lie not in rejecting in, but in ensuring an approach to beauty and luxury that recognizes these conditions as privileges that must necessarily be shared.
Rather than opt for these problematic ways in interpreting the actions of Pope Francis, I would suggest that all of the actions that have been acclaimed, and that I have problematized thus far, could be more acceptably welcomed if we stressed the possibility for communion that pervades these actions. Pope Francis’s actions have sought to affirm a collegiality of the Pope among the Bishops, and of an approachable guide among the laity. What Pope Francis can also be argued as doing therefore, is righting the scales of power, to create the possibility for equality. Rather than take away dubious cultural meanings from his actions thus far, we would be better served by embracing the collegial, and egalitarian message his actions contain.
(A version of this post first appeared in the Gomantak Times dated 4 April 2013)