Much has been made of the new Pope’s humility and modest lifestyle, which stand in stark— and some say, welcome– contrast to his predecessors. If previous pontiffs disliked the pomp and frippery that have historically accompanied their position, they didn’t show it. Unlike Pope Francis, who was elevated from his role as cardinal to his new position on March 13, 2013, predecessors wore The Ring, the bling, and the rich vestments of the papacy with apparent comfort.
The new pope, however, has largely eschewed the external finery that has historically reflected the authority and reverence with which the highest human authority of the Catholic Church should be viewed. Just as he did as cardinal in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis has declined to live in the official—and opulent—papal residence designated for his use, opting instead to make a modest, more humble home in a guest house near the Vatican. And on the day he was introduced to the masses as the new pope, he declined to ride in the Popemobile (a custom-made Benz, described by MSNBC as “a white armored Mercedes SUV, which has a white leather interior with gold trim and a white leather turret that can be raised by hydraulic lift high enough for crowds to see the pope….”), saying “I’ll just ride… on the bus.”
Material Emphasis where it Matters
On the day after Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope by a conclave of 114 cardinals, I was contacted to write a book about him. Writing the book– a collection of quotes from Pope Francis’ own work— involved reading practically everything he has ever written, and a great deal that had been written about him as well. After this immersion in the pope’s thoughts and beliefs, it was clear that his humble, no-frills, please approach to the papacy wasn’t false humility; it was the way he’d lived his entire life.
Pope Francis recognizes that the finer things in life have their place, and he doesn’t judge papal predecessors who have made choices different from his own. In a recent address, he talked about the papal ring and the other luxurious external symbols of the papacy, acknowledging that they are important within the context of a long tradition. So understand: He’s not calling for an end to tradition. He’s simply saying that the external symbols of success, authority, and luxury are merely that: symbolic.
True success, authority, and luxury aren’t extrinsic; they’re intrinsic. They are also not focused solely on the self: How will these objects or experiences make me feel? They’re focused on others, too: How will these objects or experiences affect my relationships with others? How will they either separate me or bring me closer to the world?
For Pope Francis, anything that divides him from the people he was called upon to serve is a barrier that must be removed, whether that means the formalwear of cardinal or pope, or the luxury of a chauffeured car. And elevated expenditures on his behalf simply aren’t necessary. When he was elected pope, he made a special plea to Argentineans, asking them not to spend the money to travel to his installation ceremony in Vatican City, but to make a donation to those less fortunate instead.
Pope Francis isn’t arguing that everyone should take a vow of poverty, nor that they should deny themselves from experiencing life’s material pleasures. Instead, he’s calling for a kind of conscious consumerism, in which we stop to ask ourselves, “What will this bring to my life?” and “What do my choices say about me?” and “How will my choices affect others?”
As analysts and media pundits continue to discuss what Pope Francis’ tenure will mean for the Catholic Church and its place in the world, we can also look at what the pope’s personal choices—from the most subtle to the most significant—can teach us all, regardless of our beliefs or our faith, about how to live a life that is meaningful and authentic, one where luxury takes on a new meaning and a more thoughtful place.
Through his example, Pope Francis teaches that resisting the superficial, visible symbols of luxury will actually help us find more meaning in our lives and, perhaps, true luxury: the luxury to be able to connect with one another because of who we are, rather than what we own or what we’re wearing, and the luxury of being able to feel more comfortable with exactly who we are right now, rather than what we aspire to have or be.
And that’s a powerful lesson for all of us, regardless of religion.
Photo Francis image courtesy of the Catholic Church of England & Wales.