Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Can the pope live a "normal" life?

I have written very little on this blog regarding the new pope, partly because I have found it difficult to articulate my thoughts in a form that I would be willing to share with the world. My surprise at the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope has not completely subsided, and I'm not sure that it ever will. To put it very bluntly, anyone who assumes that I would have been happy or excited by the election of Pope Francis simply because of his Jesuit background does not know me well. The idea that a Jesuit could be elected pope was virtually unthinkable three months ago, and it is not something that most Jesuits I know expected or hoped to see happen. I'm also a bit perplexed when I read or hear others say that they were particularly pleased with Francis' election because he was a Jesuit or because, as some might put it, he was "formed by the Spiritual Exercises." To repeat an old adage that I've shared here before, "If you've met one Jesuit, you've met one Jesuit." To suggest that Pope Francis acts, talks, or thinks in certain ways purely because he is Jesuit - and not, say, because he is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a unique individual with his own history - is unfair both to the pope and to the Society of Jesus.

Having offered the above as a sort of prologue, I'd like to comment on a news story reported last week regarding the new pope's living arrangements. Much has been made of Pope Francis' decision not to live in a set of apartments in the Apostolic Palace occupied by his most recent predecessors, choosing instead to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guesthouse for priests and bishops visiting the Vatican on official business. Many have praised the pope's choice as a sign of 'humility' or 'simplicity,' suggesting that Francis rejected living in the papal apartments because he found them too sumptuous, when in point of fact said apartments are actually quite spartan. In a letter to a friend recently leaked to the press, Pope Francis revealed his real reasons for choosing to stay at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Last week's story in The Telegraph has more:
[Pope Francis] explained his choice in a letter written two weeks ago to an old friend, Father Enrique Martinez, a priest at the Church of the Annunciation in La Rioja.

"I didn't want to go and live in the apostolic palace. I go over there just to work and for audiences."

"I've remained living in the Casa Santa Marta, which is a residence which accommodates bishops, priests and lay people." There he feels "part of a family" he wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Clarin, an Argentinian daily.

"I'm visible to people and I lead a normal life – a public Mass in the morning, I eat in the refectory with everyone else, et cetera. All this is good for me and prevents me from being isolated."

"I'm trying to stay the same and to act as I did in Buenos Aires because if you change at my age you just look ridiculous." The Pope, the first Jesuit pontiff in history and the first to come from the Americas, said his election was "something totally surprising" which he considers "a gift from God."
Speaking as a Jesuit, I wonder whether very many people who do not belong to religious orders like my own would think of living in a hotel and taking most of one's meals in a refectory as "normal." Despite my earlier criticism of a certain kind of 'Jesuit essentialism' in many analyses of the new pope, I actually do think that Francis' justification of his decision to live at the Domus is very typically Jesuit. This is so not because I think that living in a hotel in preference to the papal apartments gives more profound witness to the ideal of religious poverty - frankly, I think that such an argument would be ridiculous - but because the rhythm (if not the style) of life at the Domus probably more closely resembles life within a large, institutional Jesuit community than would life within the papal apartments: instead of living with a small circle of close collaborators, the new pope lives in a larger 'community' of fellow priests and bishops, with many visitors coming and going and meals taken in a large common dining room and not in a more intimate, family-style setting. As one who has lived in institutional Jesuit communities that I presume are not unlike the ones that Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived in before he became a bishop and moved into a small apartment, I think I can see where the new pope is coming from on this, even though I would rather see him living in the Apostolic Palace as other recent popes have done.

As Pope Francis' letter indicates, what was really at stake in this decision was not simplicity so much as a desire to maintain a certain degree of independence. As I wrote the day after Pope Francis' election, the loss of autonomy and a positive sense of anonymity that come from assuming the office of the papacy must be particularly difficult for a person who is used to having his own way in small matters as well as large ones. The Pope himself says that "if you change at my age you just look ridiculous." Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Jorge Mario Bergoglio's life has changed irrevocably since he became Supreme Pontiff; he may try as much as possible to maintain his own freedom of action by living in circumstances that permit him to have casual contact with a broader circle of people, but I presume that his daily encounters must remain somewhat 'scripted' insofar as his interlocutors all know that he is the pope and conduct themselves accordingly - in other words, what is 'normal' for the pope cannot really be 'normal' for those around him.

The new pope's desire to live "a normal life" is understandable, but it is also difficult to see how "normal" a pope's life can be. To repeat a point that I sought to make in March, the election of a Jesuit pope has given me a new way of understanding the total offering of self demanded by our vows. Watching Jorge Mario Bergoglio assume the yoke of the papacy, I have more than once thought of Christ's admonition to Peter in John 21:18: "When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go." Accepting the loss of freedom and anonymity that comes from an office like the papacy demands a real sacrifice of self, but so too does the humble acceptance of the many customs and expectations that come with such an office - where one must live, how one must dress, what one says in public, and so on. Pope Francis has sought as much as possible to remain himself as he exercises his new office, but the fact remains that his life is no longer his own.

As I have noted more than once in this post, I am wary of attempts to define Pope Francis in terms of his identity or background as a Jesuit. I am also wary of the overuse of the term 'humility' as applied to Pope Francis; he is certainly humble in recognizing that it is hard to change one's ways once one is old, but Pope Benedict XVI was no less humble in submitting to the expectations of his office, even when they went against his personal inclinations. Pope Francis is stubborn in a way that many of us often are, particularly as we get older, and one can recognize this while still admitting that the pope is sincere in his desire to live as simply as the duties of office allow. Pope Francis is a complex human being with his own doubts and struggles, but so was Pope Benedict XVI - and so, for that matter, was St. Peter himself. As the words and deeds of Pope Francis continue to spark debate, I hope that we will not lose sight of what is really most "normal" about the Successor of St. Peter. AMDG.


At 6/05/2013 10:42 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

I keep think of Francis Xavier, missioned on no notice, never to return "home" again -- or to a normal life.

I find myself somewhat frustrated by attempts to read various of Pope Francis' actions as critiques of Pope Benedict. Each man brought unique gifts to the office, at a unique moment in the life of the Church and therefore the potential for different -- and still equally correct -- solutions to issues (such as where does the Pope live) exists.


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