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No cape, and a second-hand ring

22 March 2013

Simplicity, it seems, will be the hallmark of the new Pope, says Paul Vallely


THE paradox of Pope Francis is that we know so little of him, and yet, already, he has communicated so much. The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope took the world by surprise. Barely a handful of Vatican insiders had mentioned his name before the conclave. When the announcement came from the balcony of St Peter's, commentators scrabbled for his Wikipedia entry or the papabili profiles written for the US National Catholic Reporter by its former Rome correspondent, the redoubtable John Allen.

Yet, in the few days since then, Pope Francis I has sent out a tide of small signifiers that can leave us in no doubt that a new era has begun in Rome - and a very different one.

It commenced when he first appeared on the balcony without the papal mozetta, wearing his own simple pectoral cross, and giving a calm, unostentatious wave. When he spoke, there was little formality. He started by saying "Good evening," made a gentle joke, and asked the crowd to join him in prayer for Pope Emeritus Benedict. He then began the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory be. Before offering a blessing to the city and the world, he asked those before him for "a favour": that they would pray for him. He bowed his head. When the papal blessing came, it was to "all people of good will". This was the language of Vatican II. It sent out a ripple of shock after the retrenchments of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis used the same language at his press conference a few days later, when he told journalists that, believers and non-believers alike, he respected them as made in the image of God. It was there again in his homily at his inaugural mass on Tuesday. This Pope wants to speak to the whole of humanity.

Behind the scenes, the signals to papal courtiers were even clearer. When the Master of Ceremonies offered Pope Francis the traditional red mozetta trimmed with ermine, he is said to have replied: "No thank you, Monsignor. Carnival time is over." And when he broke the seals of the papal apartment to take possession of his new home, he shocked Vatican staff by saying: "There's room for 300 people here. I don't need all this space."

This was the man who renounced the archi-episcopal palace in Buenos Aires to remain living in the small apartment that he had occupied as Jesuit Provincial, cooking his own food there and taking the bus round the city.

Pope Francis has broken tradition after tradition. He refused to use a platform to elevate himself above those he described as his brother cardinals - a signal that this will be a papacy that is less autocratically centrist and more collegial. His constant references to himself as Bishop of Rome seem code for that, too. He chose a simple coat of arms. He chose a second-hand Fisherman's Ring from Paul VI's reign - gold-plated rather than solid gold.

This is going to be an unpredictable papacy. Only hours after his election, the first Jesuit Pope slipped out of the Vatican in an unmarked car to pray at the basilica where the founder of his order once prayed. On the way back, he asked the driver to stop at the conclave hostel to pick up his bags, pay the bill, and thank the staff. The next day, he again left the Vatican, incognito, to visit a sick friend in hospital.

The new Pope combines a fierce Jesuit intelligence - evident in the Ignatian discernment that underpins his inaugural sermon's insistence that "authentic power is service" - and the profound spirituality of his chosen namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who answered a call from God to "repair my church in ruins". There are interesting times ahead.

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