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The Francis Effect

I am certainly among those Catholics who tend to gush about what some religion writers are now calling “the Francis Effect,” and who make much of our new Pope’s evident distaste for baroque vestments, Prada shoes, and ecclesiastical bling; his evident preference for clerical work clothes to pontifical regalia, a casually hospitable residence to the opulent papal apartment, and a four-door Ford Focus to an exotically accessorized Mercedes Benz. All these splendid chops have been on worldwide display during his visit to Brazil, and we haven’t seen the last of them.

It is refreshing to witness the embarrassment of princely churchmen as they’re  shown up by the new boss, but even among us good  middleclass Catholic outliers, “Commonweal Catholics,” NCR editorialists, nuns on buses, progressive directors of religious education, innovative liturgists, advocates of women’s ordination, and exasperated leftist pro-lifers, there must stir an uneasy sense of “tu quoque.”  When the newly elected Pope Francis said that he longs for a Church that is poor and for the poor, he undoubtedly had overdressed and bejeweled cardinals, careerist bishops, and cufflink priests in mind, but he was addressing all the rest of us, too. Just because I don’t sit on a Bernini throne, keep a limo driver on hold and have a staff of vowed religious waiting on me at dinnertime doesn’t mean that I have no ballast to throw out, no occluded lifestyle to simplify, open up and focus.

Half a century ago, while Jorge Mario Bergoglio was teaching high school in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro was asking a question which seems now to adumbrate the new papacy:

What is the meaning of poverty within the Church?   

No one can deny that it was chosen by the incarnate Son of God Who being rich, made Himself poor.  This choice He constantly maintained throughout his life, from the stable at Bethlehem to the nudity of the Cross. What is more, He preached poverty and held it forth as an inescapable demand for those who wished to be his disciples.

This seems to me to constitute above all the mystery of poverty in the Church; a mystery, moreover, which is bound up not only with its evangelical origins but its entire history.  So much so that the great epochs, the great movements of internal reformation and renewal within the Church, and the periods of its most auspicious expansion throughout the world have invariably been those epochs in which the spirit of poverty has been affirmed and lived to the most manifest degree.

Cardinal Lercaro was nowhere near Buenos Aires at the time. He was at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, but the future Pope Francis seems to have heard the late Archbishop of Bologna’s words loud and clear.

Whether or not the Francis Effect will usher in one of the great epochs Cardinal Lercaro was talking about is for us—each of us—to decide. And that should scare us—each of us—at least a little.

About the Author

Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.



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As has been stated elsewhere on dotC:

“Why is it that Scandinavian countries, overwhelmingly Lutheran, are able to live more simply and more equitably than Catholic countries or regions with high proportions of Catholics?” – See more at:

May Catholics, most of whom were not from backgrounds even remotely considered to be well-of at the grandparent and possibly parental level, have come to value the things that the better life has to offer ….

“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!”

Hilaire Belloc

At Vatican II Cardinal Lercaro participated in a group called "The Church of the Poor Group," which urged greater attention to the problem of poverty. Picking up on a comment made by Pope John XXIII a month before the Council opened--"Confronted with the underdeveloped countries, the Church presents itself as it is and wishes to be, as the Church of all, and particularly as the Church of the poor"--Lercaro's speech at the end of the Council's first session--probably written by his close adviser Giuseppe Dossetti, asked that poverty not be simply one among the many themes the Council would address but be a reference-point or a lens through which all the matters the Council addressed would be considered. The speech had little effect on the conciliar agenda or on the final texts. This is all that Lumen gentium had to say:

Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and under oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path in communicating to men the fruits of salvation. Christ Jesus, "though he was in the form of God...emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave" (Phil 2:6), and "being rich, he became poor" (2 Cor 8:9) for our sakes. Thus, although the Church needs human resources to carry out her mission, she is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to  proclaim humility and self-sacrifice, even by her own example. Christ was sent by the Father "to bring good news to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart" (Lk 4:18). Similarly, the Church surrounds with love all those who are afflicted by human weakness. Indeed in the poor and suffering she recognizes the image of her poor and suffering Founder and she does all she can to relieve their need and in them she strives to serve Christ" (LG 8).

Although the Council devoted a whole chapter of Gaudium et spes (nos. 63-72) to socio-economic matters, dealing with them along the lines of modern papal social teaching, the great inequalities between wealthy and poor groups and countries are in fact dealt with as one among the many topics that document addressed. Poverty never became what Lercaro had proposed the focusing lens of the Council's work.

I agree that clerics should be humble nad have a poverty of spirit in their every day lives.

I do not understand however, why progressive Catholics are so bothered by formal liturgical dress, or "bling," as the author so crassly calls it.

Human beings are physical creatures  who perceive through their senses.  The Curch has always had a physical sacramentality to reflect this fact.

Liturgical "pomp" (another favored word of progressive Catholics)  serves to elevate the mind of the worshipper to God , to beauty, and  to the sacred.  If the priest and the congregation wear shabby clothes and vestments to mass there will be no elevation of the spiririt via the senses, no physical reminders that the mass is different than going to a ball game, that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Faith.

To honor God in this way is only appropriate as Jesus himself noted in Chapter 14 of Mark:

"3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.  4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.  6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you,[b] and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

So far so good in Rio. 

Pope Francis visited a favela, stopped in at someone's house for a bit, and gave an inspirational talk to the people who lived in that slum area.  Later in a beautiful cathedral, he met with some 32,000 Argentine kids and that was nice too.

The attandance at Rio is great, but the weather has been marginal.



Sorry JH, your post sounds more like an attempt at becoming more comfortable with your own prejudices and preconceptions.

Leaving all the obvious connotations of sexual foreplay in the gospel passage you cite aside, it's a stretch to construe that Jesus was endorsing luxuriating in the material excess that capitalism/wealth fosters.

I think it is a good step forward to have a pope - a Jesuit to boot - who really has a "preferential option for the poor" than a pope who made fashion statements with Prada shoes and accessorizes with Gucci sunglasses all the while constantly lecturing [the "West"] about moral relativism.

True - one of the most attractive things about Catholicism is it presentation with ritualized costuming (i.e., vestments, ceremony, etc.) a mysticism that transports the believer beyond space and time.  But if this mysticism is to have any meaning in the 21st century, it must be rooted in the gospel of social justice.  Before Jesus was the Christ of faith, he was a political zealot in 1st century Palestine seething under Roman domination and oppression - a radical, long-haired, socialist Jew. 

By visiting the Varginha favela yesterday, Papa Francesco was more accurately re-enacting Jesus asking for a drink of water from the marginalized, outcast, unclean Samarian woman at the well.  The obvious significance, symbolism should not be lost on any of us.

In an earlier time in the history of the Church one might have simply recited the Beatitudes to make Pope Francis's point. By now, sadly, they have been explained and denatured to the point where Tiffany's or Godiva could run them as an ad and raise hardly anyone's eyebrow.

Nevertheless, by calling himself to act according to the (only! original!) Beatitudes, Francis has been calling the rest of us to follow him. Michael Garvey, you have it exactly right that he has to have more than his bejeweled cardinals and bishops in mind. I think I detect a simplification of pectoral crosses on the red- and purple-beanied prelates circling the pope in Rio. That's a good start. Let us laity go and do likewise.

It was always there before us. But crafty theologians rationalized that it is the attachment to riches not the possession that was evil. Ho Ho. So riches, fine jewelry. opulent life style was fine as long as one had priorities straight. Stunning how wo/man can deceive oneself!!

But I like cufflink priests!

Cardinal Dolan has been quoted as saying that Pope Francis is getting him to re-think the opulence and comfort available these days to cardinals/bishops.  Good for him!  No doubt there are others thinking the same thing.  And look at it this way:  they elected him pope, so they can't be all bad :-)

Frances has spoken very strongly in Rio about the need to welcome surprises, that it is essential that Christians do so.  I wonder if he's preparing the Curia for some bombshells!

I agree that clerics should be humble and have a poverty of spirit in their every day lives.

... not to mention everyone else, too! :-)

A good Jew would know that the quote from Deuteronomy 15  "The poor you will have always with you" is in the same chapter as this admonition to the people of Israel: "Let there be no poor among you." It is also followed by the admonition to open wide you ahd to the needy and the poor."

With this I am making no comment on issues of "pomp.' But I want to wanr us to be wary of facile text proofs.


Obaroque vestments, Prada shoes, and ecclesiastical bling; his evident preference for clerical work clothes to pontifical regalia, a casually hospitable residence to the opulent papal apartment, and a four-door Ford Focus to an exotically accessorized Mercedes Benz. - See more at:

baroque vestments, Prada shoes, and ecclesiastical bling; his evident preference for clerical work clothes to pontifical regalia, a casually hospitable residence to the opulent papal apartment, and a four-door Ford Focus to an exotically accessorized Mercedes Benz. - See more at:

Sorry, I pasted that too many times due to a browserproblem, but I thought it was a truly funny collection of the type of cliches that people in the US tend to believe about the Vatican! Especially the opulent papal apartment and the exotically accessorized Mercedes Benz!!

"Leaving all the obvious connotations of sexual foreplay in the gospel passage you cite aside, it's a stretch to construe that Jesus was endorsing luxuriating in the material excess that capitalism/wealth fosters." I did not think JH was saying anything of the sort.

Let's not forget that John Paul II had the same populist appeal and simple forthright style as Francis. But he made the church doctrinally and structurally rigid to the point of sclerosis. Thinking Catholics should keep this in mind, as a new deluge of the cult of papal personality sweeps over us.


Thinking Catholics are grateful that you're keeping the proverbial finger in the dike!

“Liturgical ‘pomp’ (another favored word of progressive Catholics) serves to elevate the mind of the worshipper to God, to beauty, and to the sacred.”

That statement requires proof just as the statements presented in questions asked of Cardinal Burke on Thursday by a ZENIT interviewer.  

ZENIT: Some argue the liturgy is mostly about aesthetics, and not as important as, say, good works done in faith. What is your view of this argument that one often hears?

ZENIT: It’s said love for the sacred liturgy and being pro-life go together, that those who worship correctly are more likely to want to bring children into the world. Could you explain why this is so?


Helen, I didn't know that Larry King worked for Zenit now. Who else could ask such softball questions?

And get a soundbite of Cardinal Burke saying that the answer to the first question is " It’s a Communist misconception."

To JH:  "I do not understand however, why progressive Catholics are so bothered by formal liturgical dress, or "bling," as the author so crassly calls it."

I can only speak for myself, but I do know from conversations with others, that many share this view.

Jesus and the apostles and almost all of the early discipes were not rich. Jesus warned against the moral hazards of excessive wealth on many occasions.  One can assume that Jesus and hiw followers didn't wear silk robes nor gold jewelry.  They did not live in mansions or palaces and command a small army of servants. Jesus specifically criticized the Pharisees for putting too much of their attention on their "long tassels" and robes, on their desire to be seen and "respected", on the "law" rather than on "mercy and justice".

Most early christians were not rich.  Constantine changed that - an emperor for whom outward displays of lavish wealth were a symbol of his secular power as well. Unfortunately, the leaders of the church adopted this rather wordly standard as they too gained secular power, side by side with emperors and kings.

Many look at the "pomp" and the appearance of conspicuous consumption (through the clothing, jewelry, and the material level of living arrangements and even cars and a staff of servants) as reflecting the world's secular values of wealth and power rather than the values taught by Jesus, both in his words and how he lived his life and how his disciples lived theirs. 

I have never heard anyone suggest that priests and those at mass wear "shabby" clothing. I have never heard anyone suggest that the priest should not wear vestments. 

But there is a difference between respecting the tradition and symbols conveyed by liturgical clothing and seeming to publicly advocate conspicuous consumption displays of materialism and wealth. Many find the excess displays of monarchical-style clothing and accessories to be jarring - they do not lead the person to reflect on what Jesus taught in both words and through the way he actually lived his life (rejecting material wealth and favoring simplicity), but creates a cognitive dissonance between what the church teaches and what it is demonstrating through excessive displays of material wealth.


I am running out the door. I am sorry for the typos, but I think the comment can be understood so won't correct.  I have asked more than once if there is an edit capability - but so far have not had anyone instruct me in its use if there is one!

Anne, thank you, your observations are "spot on".  Any student of organizational culture  will acknowledge that clothing and other artifacts are not to be ignored.  They can reveal to some degree institutional values and priorities.  Burke and likeminded, it seems, have demonstrated a rigidity of religious approach that, quite simply, turns most folks "off".  If B16's "smaller" church is also "purer", the two don't necessarily equate to "healthier".

Joseph O'Leary, thanks for noting the cult of papal personality.  It likely played no small role in setting up JPII for promotion to official sainthood.  Any other institution, following on the heels of learning that its CEO ignored repeated complaints of managerial sexual abuse, etc., would have ushered its exec out the door long before now.  Only in the Church of Rome where the Pope is the "Successor of Christ".....

GK Chesterton famously said that there were two ways to get enough. One is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.

I think that the emphasis on Christian voluntary poverty should be on simplicity and healthy ascetics that involves renunciation of desire for power and the trappings of power.

I am reminded of the humorous joke about the young man who goes to visit the Jesuits as he is discerning a vocation. The Jesuit shows him the wall to wall carpeting at the college, and the all leather furniture and silverware in the house. After touring it all, he says to a friend, if this is poverty, I can't wait to see chastity!

Funny joke but some truth to it. If there is an excess in one area, it is more likely that there will be excesses in other areas as well.



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