The rise of Pope Francis has certainly raised new questions for Vatican watchers, such as: How significant is it that he has not been wearing cufflinks? In the past, this kind of detail "would be seen as frivolous," noted Rocco Palmo of Philadelphia, whose "Whispers In The Loggia" site is must reading for Catholic insiders. Now, this pope's commitment to beyond-symbolic simplicity is causing religious leaders, journalists, diplomats and Catholics at every level to wrestle with the importance of his Jesuit roots, as well as his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi.
The symbolism began with his introduction, when he wore simple white vestments -- the papal equivalent of street clothes -- and declined a formal, ermine-trimmed red cape. He has been wearing his steel pectoral cross, rather than an ornate gold papal model. He has favored black walking shoes over dramatic red footwear.
Greeting the masses in St. Peter's Square, he bowed and said: "Before the bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me." Then he rode the bus with the cardinals, one white skullcap among the red ones. He returned to the Domus Paulus VI -- where he roomed pre-conclave -- to collect his luggage and pay his own bill. The pope has been placing some of his own calls, shocking clergy who answer their telephones and find the occupant of St. Peter's throne on the other end of the line.
Pope Francis is so reluctant to change his style, noted Palmo, that this trend even "extends under the white cassock, to boot: the Argentine pontiff's preferences don't just make his move to keep wearing black pants visible through the garment, but likewise highlight the untucked tails of his white dress-shirt.
"In other words, the lack of fuss isn't just a show for the world. But having declined the archbishop's residence in Buenos Aires for a flat where he did his own cooking, and riding around the city on buses and subways without an entourage, that was fairly well-established."
The connections to St. Francis are obvious and, this past weekend, the new pope explained to media professionals why he chose that name. But while telling this story, Pope Francis offered another layer of content for journalists who had ears to hear his deeper, more critical, message.
As the votes lined up in favor of the cardinal from Argentina, he said a friend hugged him and advised, "Don't forget the poor."
"And those words came to me: the poor, the poor," said Pope Francis, according to a Vatican Radio translation. "Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars. … Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.
"For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation. These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace. … How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor!"
On one level, these remarks to the press focused on issues -- economic justice, peace and the environment -- that are usually framed in political language in news reports. However, Pope Francis stressed that it is crucial for journalists to realize that pivotal religious events, such as his election, cannot be reduced to mere politics.
"Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events," said the pope. Nevertheless, they "follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the 'worldly' categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. …
"All of this leads me to thank you once more for your work in these particularly demanding days, but also to ask you to try to understand more fully the true nature of the church, as well as her journey in this world, with her virtues and her sins, and to know the spiritual concerns which guide her and are the most genuine way to understand her."
The bottom line? "The church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails," he said, "yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual."