We tend to remember leaders in characteristic poses. For Pope Benedict XVI, the college professor, it was delivering a much-misunderstood lecture at the University of Regensburg, which made controversial reference to Islam. For Pope Francis, it is kneeling to wash the feet of a young Muslim woman in a prison on Holy Thursday. With due respect to Benedict’s learning, Francis’s symbolic act managed to more effectively communicate the essence of the Christian gospel.
The Catholic tradition, from catacombs to cathedrals, is filled with potent symbols. There is the cross, the fish, the dove and the lamb. There is Mary’s blue, the purple of penance and the red of martyrs’ blood. Francis excels at the symbolism of humility. He lives in a two-room apartment, dresses in simple white and speaks in direct, colloquial language. His assistant is reputed to carry a cellphone, making the pope callable, maybe.
Francis has not yet issued sweeping declarations. But his symbolism has begun seeping into substance. He seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor. And he sounds like an institutional reformer. Here is the Vatican’s account of one papal sermon: “When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story.”