It is alleged that after the storming of the Bastille in 1789, the King of France, Louis XVI, remarked to an aide that this was a revolt, only to be corrected: “No, Sire, it is a revolution.” Apocryphal or otherwise, the aide’s laconic response identified for the still uncomprehending monarch the truth of the attack: A momentum had been unleashed that would have irreversible consequences. Not least, for the Bourbons.
The cardinal-electors who chose Jorge Mario Bergoglio last March to succeed the retired Benedict XVI might well have indulged in the notion that their decision was a revolt against expectations, a sundering of the plans of the pundits, but they would not have thought of it as revolutionary.
But that is precisely what the election of Francis, the pope from the Americas, has proven to be. And Francis himself is the revolution. Not the scheming Jesuit of popular imagination nor a fifth columnist for liberation theology, Francis’s revolution is of a different kind: He has remade the face of the papacy; he has humanized the Office of Peter.
He hasn’t done this by issuing a series of authoritative declarations; and he hasn’t ushered in, at least not yet, a wholesale replacement of the current officialdom with the Vatican equivalent of Young Turks. He has simply and eloquently transferred his pastoral style from the River Plate to the River Tiber. That’s the revolution.
By choosing to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae rather than the Apostolic Palace, by choosing to depart from the constrictions of protocol and papal script, by simplifying the rubrics of decorum and by opting for spontaneity and extempore asides and gestures over prescribed rituals, he demonstrates again and again that he learned to be a bishop in Argentina and that he sees no reason to accommodate his style to what is expected at the seat of Catholic power. He will be Peter on his own terms.
And these terms are revolutionary: simplicity of living; acute sensitivity to the poor; accessibility; an attitude of welcome as opposed to a posture of censure; a receptivity to alternate points of view as opposed to a summary dismissal of contesting opinion. In short, Francis has, by rewriting the script, demystified the papacy. His style is his substance.
When he cautions prelates and diplomats that they are to be pastors and not princes, when he jettisons the papal throne and sits in a circle with his guests, when he dines with the staff in shared digs rather than in the rarefied setting of the papal apartments, when he casts aside prepared remarks and engages in an animated conversation with thousands of youth, and when he washes the feet of a Muslim girl he affirms publicly his private conviction that a priest, a bishop, and, yes, the Bishop of Rome, must have about him “the smell of the sheep.”
The media, the non-Catholic world, and a sizable percentage of the Catholic population as well, are fascinated by the exotica of papal governance, vesture, manners and conventions. There is a mystique about the papacy that is alluring, its pageantry theatre with few parallels, its music and art an aperture to divinity. As the 19th century political economist Walter Bagehot famously warned: Allowing daylight to shine upon the magic of the monarchy diminishes its mystique.
But the papacy, appearances to the contrary, is not a monarchy; it is a ministry. Centuries of historical encrustations have hampered the effective exercise of this ministry and Francis is determined that Peter is no longer hostage to an anachronistic mode of leadership. That is why he jokes, as he did in a recent audience, that Mr. Pope is no more nor less important than everyone else. He will be Christ’s Poor Servant, not Christ’s Regent.
We are now 100 days into the Franciscan revolution.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.