It has been nearly one month since the stunning announcement of the election of Pope Francis to the head of the Catholic Church, the first Jesuit and first Latin American to hold the office in history.
Based on the way some have been reporting from Rome, one would think the Berlin Wall had just fallen or a “Vatican Spring” was fermenting in St. Peter’s Square. Change, transformation, and progress—these are the buzzwords for describing Pope Francis’s decisions in recent weeks, whether it is his choice to live in the unadorned papal guesthouse or the style of garments he has worn. Yet, as with most matters, a more nuanced analysis reveals a different and more surprising story. Fundamentally, Pope Francis’s papacy thus far has not been that revolutionary.
Take two examples. First, those famous red shoes that Pope Francis has thus far chosen not to wear. The papal shoes are customarily made of red leather to symbolize the blood of Christians who died because of their faith. While their history dates back centuries, they have not gone unmodified during that time. Pope John XXIII added gold buckles to his; his successor Pope Paul VI simplified the shoes and removed both the buckles and gold crosses from them. Nor is Pope Francis the first to refrain from them: Pope John Paul II declined the red shoes for brown ones, instead.
Or consider Pope Francis’s decision on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of women as well as men in an Italian youth detention center. The Latin instructions for the ritual use the term viri selecti to describe the participants, which is translated as “selected men.” As the 12 individuals whose feet the priest washes symbolize the 12 Apostles, this is not surprising. Nevertheless, the details of the foot washing ritual are actually the provenance of each bishop; in the U.S. for example, both men and women have been allowed to take part in the ceremony since 1987, as noted in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Holy Thursday Mandatum instructions. Pope Francis, as Bishop of Rome, can make the same decision for his diocese; suddenly the Holy Thursday liturgy seems much less a radical change.
In short, Pope Francis’s first month has not been a revolution, or even a shift in the Catholic Church’s direction. Instead, it has been more like revitalization, a reaffirmation of the call of Christ. The Catholic Church is always changing, because it deals with people. As culture changes, the Church, through its ministry, attempts to meet people in their native time and place. Yet the Catholic Church is also always constant, in that its commitment to doctrine, stewarded from generation to generation, stays true.
The first month of Pope Francis’s papacy has been a reminder that every pope has a different style, which is a source of great comfort. They have different likes and dislikes, varying strengths and weaknesses that allow them to meet the challenge of the day in exciting and passionate ways. Like the Jesuits of Georgetown, the popes of history, even of our own time, have been infinitely diverse.
Hoyas today were born during the papacy of John Paul II. He was the activist pope, the pope of hope. He spoke out against the oppression of millions behind the Iron Curtain, in Latin America, and around the world. He stared down the Soviets over Poland; he took a bullet on the streets of Rome. He was prolific in his travels, and in the end his very public suffering through illness and old age offered inspiration to many in pain.
John Paul II was followed by Pope Benedict XVI; he was the teaching pope, the pope of faith. He was a scholar, a prolific writer whose prose laid out a firm theological and philosophical foundation for Catholics in the 21st century. He was a quiet and shy man, a behind-the-scenes shaper who never desired the papal position. And in the end, Benedict XVI had the humility to set aside the papal office when he knew he no longer had the strength.
Now, Benedict XVI was followed by Pope Francis. If his first month is any indication, he will be the serving pope, the pope of charity. He is committed to simplicity and proximity, even willing to speak Italian over his native Spanish for the sake of his staff. He is a pastoral pope, saying regular Sunday Mass and greeting parishioners following the liturgy. He emphasizes the Christian call to action to help people on the margins.
Three very different men; three very different popes. Yet the Catholic Church has remained recognizable not in spite of, but because of, its variety. As Pope Francis continues his time in office, some might attempt to draw bombastic conclusions about the Church from the most minuscule of changes in his customs. But the great joy for all stems from what remains unchanged: a Christian commitment to faith, hope, and love for God and others.