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There’s the Rub

Holy See

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I really like this new Pope. Last Holy Thursday, he washed the feet of 12 people, in a reenactment of Jesus Christ washing the feet of his 12 apostles. It’s a ritual to reaffirm the Catholic Church’s commitment to humility, its highest official himself submitting to this lowliest gesture. Nothing new there of course except for this: The feet belonged to the inmates of a juvenile correctional in Rome, two of whom were girls, and one of whom was Muslim.

It had Christian traditionalists, who applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s efforts in the past to restore grandeur and majesty to the papacy, howling their heads off. Of course Pope Francis had done it before in Buenos Aires when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he washed the feet of women along with men on Holy Thursday, but they didn’t expect him to continue with that when he was already pope. “The horror,” one conservative Latin American archbishop said. “The official end of the reform of the reform—by example,” Rorate Caeli, one of the traditionalist blogs, cried.

Elsewhere the Pope’s act was welcomed enthusiastically by faithful and nonfaithful alike. It was of course all of a piece with what Pope Francis had been doing these last few weeks, and you are stunned to realize he has been pope for just a month or so. Yet he might as well have been there for a year or more, given the extent to which he has turned things around in the Vatican.

True enough by example: From the very start, he shunned the regal trappings of the papacy, opting for simpler vestments. On his inauguration as pope, he begged off from wearing the red velvet cape, used for grand official functions, preferring instead to just wear a simple white cassock. He received the cardinals’ professions of loyalty not from a chair on a pedestal but standing up on the same level with them.

Then on Holy Thursday, he did the above. The following day, Good Friday, he led the Stations of the Cross where the prayers that were recited at each cross were composed by young Lebanese. They called for an end to “violent fundamentalism, terrorism and the wars and violence which in our days devastate various countries in the Middle East.” Pope Francis himself capped the meditations by extending the hand of friendship to “our so many Muslim brothers and sisters” who are suffering the same fate.

I really like this new Pope. The power of what he has done, or at least initiated, goes beyond his exhortations for us to hark to the needs of the poor, to care for the poor, to help the poor. Or the marginalized generally, which in Christendom has also meant, particularly during Benedict’s time, not just the poor, but also women and non-Christians. That is no mean feat in itself, wrought as it has been in such a short time. Indeed, wrought as it has been amid ferocious opposition, within an institution that has seemed as impervious to change as, well, a rock, as it calls itself.

But more than this, the power of what he has done lies in that he has, true enough by sheer example, persuaded us, guided us, compelled us, to see the poor.

Last Holy Week was by no means the first time I saw a pontiff kissing the feet of the lowly, the down-and-out. Other popes had done it in the past, it is hallowed tradition during Lent. But this is the first time I’ve seen it and been moved by it. That picture of Pope Francis last Thursday kissing the feet of the modern-day version of the apostles was startling not just because of the composition of the lot, which truly reminds us of how ragged and destitute the original apostles were, but because it looked absolutely genuine. It wasn’t just ritual, it wasn’t just routine, it wasn’t just something popes had to do once a year. It was something he did out of belief, out of compassion, out of an immediate and powerful connection with the poor.

Those people weren’t just props in a Lenten rite, they were real people to him. He had walked with them, talked with them, broken bread with them. He could see them.

It’s not the easiest thing to do, to see the poor. Particularly from the lofty perch Pope Francis occupies now, particularly with the base jealousies and fears he has unleashed among an elite unwilling to give up their privileges. You see that right where we are. Though we teem with poor right at the heart of the city, we do not see them. What we see are malls, cars and the bright lights of the city. The poor are just the vague and fleeting shadows that weave around cars and buses and jeepneys, badgering commuters for coin, but whose faces we are not quite able to transfix into reality, into shape and form, into flesh and blood.

We do not see them. They are invisible. They might as well not be there.

Not to Pope Francis. Any more than it is so to people like Chito Tagle and Tony Meloto. It awes me that there are people like them, people who have reached the heights they have, but who, having come from the poor themselves or hovered around its margins, have never forgotten poor. They congregate with the poor, they live with the poor, not out of obligation, not out of a sense of duty, but because it is the most natural thing in the world. That is the congregation, that is the faithful. The same congregation the founder of their church faced every day, the same faithful the builder of their faith turned the once faithless into. Pope Francis, Tagle, Meloto: They wash the feet of the poor not just on Holy Thursday but every day, if in a figurative sense, and in doing so they do not see a formless mass, they see people. They do not see slime and grime, they see the faces of the apostles.

Before you can be concerned with the poor, you must first see them. That is what Pope Francis by everything he’s done these past weeks has been helping us to do. See them.

He’s the real deal, this Holy See.


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