Can I be honest? Sometimes the pope’s vestments are downright tacky. He reminds me of that relative who we all love, but who doesn’t understand that we don’t want the tacky sweater she gives us for Christmas each year.
As Pope Francis gave his Urbi et Orbi, the first thing I thought was; Who picked out that stole?!?! Then two days later he was named the best dressed man of 2013 by Esquire! I wondered if we were talking about the same person? But, I bit my tongue. Then after Forbes’, “How Pope Francis Is Changing Our Definition Of Success,” I knew I had to say something. If Pope Francis is redefining success, then he is also redefining the way we dress for it.
I am left wondering a few things: Does reaching out to the poor, needy, and vulnerable mean that we cannot care about how we look? Is caring for the poor and neglected in society opposed to liturgical beauty and the arts? Does simplicity require tackiness?
Pope Benedict did not think any of these things.
Pope Francis has been right to steer the Church away from the European opulence which has marked some clerics during Pope Benedict’s reign. By getting their pastoral priorities wrong, they came as wolves in sheep’s clothing, or in this case haute couture. But Pope Benedict should be distinguished from those who donned gold thread fabric, embroidery or intricate lace simply for aesthetic concerns. For Pope Benedict it was all about the Gospel…and that makes all the difference.
Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have more in common than meets the eye. I refuse to let those who see Pope Francis as the antithesis of Benedict assert that art and beauty are distractions from the Gospel, or even opposed to it. Against this notion I am reminded of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with costly oil (Mark 14:3-9). In this story even opulence can be an expression of love for our divine Savior.
Pope Benedict was not wrong to highlight beauty; rather the problem was that his understanding of beauty did not resonate with most of the modern world.
As Pope Francis’ dress (along with much of his papacy) continues to startle, overwhelm, excite, and challenge us, I hope we do not draw from him the conclusion that beauty is counter to Christ’s message. The ability to see beauty and create beautiful things is central to what it means to be a human being. And because Jesus came to elevate our human nature, not obliterate it, this human urge toward beauty is very much part of the Christian Gospel. Beauty is a reflection of redeemed humanity at its best, and even more of God who is the highest Beauty.
I hope that Pope Francis does not abandon Pope Benedict’s attempts to call the world to that which is beautiful within it. Rather, I hope that Pope Francis can help us re-imagine and re-contextualize what is beautiful.
Since as Mary Gavenas said to Esquire, “menswear is meant to express the character of the man wearing the clothes,” it is important that Francis’ clothing express his own sensibilities. I think it would be good for Pope Francis, and those consulting him, to learn something from Pope Benedict’s sense of beauty. The result would be less opulent, not so European, and not so antiquated – but still beautiful. Simple – but still noble. Then we might finally catch a glimpse of the noble simplicity which is the elusive hallmark of the Roman Rite.