by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
Every pope brings a distinctive personality to his papacy. The furthest back my memory of popes goes is to Pius XII, who died in 1958. Pius was a rather regal and remote figure. My mother, who was an art student in Rome in the later 1940s, told me that when Pius was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica, people dropped to their knees out of sheer awe.
John XXIII succeeded Pius and immediately was embraced as a warm and fatherly figure. John’s fame is associated with his dramatic calling of an ecumenical council. His aim was to “open the windows” of the Church to the modern world. He was much loved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
John died in 1963 to be succeeded by Pope Paul VI. Paul’s style was rather ascetic. He suffered a great deal due to the fact that he had to take up, complete, and implement Vatican II—a project that created a whirlwind of controversy and contrariness in the Church.
The “September Pope,” John Paul I, who lived for only a month in 1978, did not have time to make a mark on the Church, but he reminded people of John XIII and was popularly styled “The smiling Pope.”
The election of Pope John Paul II was a huge breakthrough in that he was the first non-Italian Pope in centuries. He was a figure of enormous strength, courage, and personal charisma. He became one of the great international figures of his time and he played a major part in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Pope Benedict XVI was theologically very much in the mold of John Paul II. He was a man of marked personal gentleness, yet he was a strict enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy. His great contributions were to link the post-Vatican II Church with the pre-Vatican II Church and to place the liturgy at the very heart of the Church’s life.
Then there is Pope Francis. This Pope is still an enigma to many, yet there is no doubt that he brings a new and fresh style to the papacy. Right from his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he exuded an aura of simplicity and humility. His style was manifested in his decision to live in what is practically a hotel, the House of Saint Martha, rather than take up residence in the papal apartments. He generally avoids the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the hills outside of Rome, instead spending the hot summer in the Vatican. He rides not in a Mercedes, but in a modest 1984 Renault, and he has even traveled in a bus with the cardinals. He created delight in most quarters, and astonishment in others, when he washed the feet of twelve prisoners, including two non-Catholics, on Holy Thursday.
His expressed program for the Church is that it should be a humble institution, that it have humble bishops, and that clergy should live modest lifestyles and be close to the people. He stated memorably that if the people are the sheep, then the clergy should “smell” like sheep.
Most of all, Pope Francis wants a Church that is close to the people, is compassionate to sinners, and is merciful to those who live in imperfect situations.
Pope Francis, I suggest, is the Pope of Humility. I do not mean to say that the other Popes I have described here were not humble–only that humility in style and outlook is to date the most remarkable characteristic of Pope Francis.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent’s parish, Salt Lake City.
By permission of The Intermountain Catholic, Salt Lake City.