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.