The question I keep hearing about Pope Francis is whether he is all style or will eventually get around to the substance of changing the church.
We’ve all heard that the new pope values simplicity, washes the feet of women, shuns the papal apartment, all that sort of stuff. Liberals and conservatives alike are waiting to see when the pope gets down to “substance,” to naming top Vatican officials, making pronouncements on issues like married priests and cracking down on bishops – that sort of thing.
To me, the debate misses the point. When we’re talking about religion – and, probably, when we’re talking about most things – style, in fact, is substance.
Just take the pope’s garb, for example. For a generation or more, Roman Catholic prelates have donned increasingly ornate vestments. They wear scarlet; they wear lace; they wear ostentatious gold pieces of jewelry; they wear varieties of exotic headpieces.
Francis wears a plain white cassock. In the space of three weeks, he has made his royalty-imitating courtiers look comical. And, if you happen to attend a Protestant church, you may have noticed that we, too, are affecting peacock-like vestments. And we, too, will see ourselves as looking more silly than reverent.
That’s not just “style.” If you dress like a medieval potentate, you aren’t likely to see yourself as a servant of the poor. Style is substance.
My guess is that, within three years, you won’t see the hierarchy dressed in lace. And that won’t change once Francis leaves the scene. Once people start laughing at you, the fun goes out of dress-up.
You see, the thing about “substance” is that it relies on temporal power and temporal power is a fleeting thing. It lasts only so long as you can coerce people to do your bidding – and there are always people around doing their best to make sure your bidding doesn’t get done. Did anyone notice that President Obama was recently reelected?
Already, you see Catholic traditionalists redefining the new pope’s actions and words as upholding their right to power and glory – but, unless they develop an affection for the slums, they won’t be successful.
Style differs from power because one’s style illuminates who that person is. If it is a positive style, it lasts.
In Buenos Aires, where Francis served as archbishop, his record in matters of substance is debatable. But when the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen walked the slums of Buenos Aires, he found an amazing percentage of poor people there carried photographs of themselves and their archbishop. These people don’t need to be told their new pope loves the poor – they have the pictures to show it and they are in the pictures with him.
Francis will, of course, demonstrate “substance.” The job of the pope is to make decisions and he will make them in the form of a 76-year-old white churchman, with all the wisdom and limitations that implies. I fully expect to be disappointed in many of his actions.
But I suspect that, along the way, his “style” will inspire all sorts of young men and women to take a new look at Christianity and find, through the church, ways to serve the poor and those who feel outside the boundaries of God’s love.
Style, after all, is substance.