Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Speaking with Symbols

A Catholic Times journalist responsible for reporting news from abroad recalls the media coverage of the three most recent popes, especially coverage of their trips outside of Rome. They are treated like entertainers who, when they first alight in a foreign land, are making fashion statements, he says, with their clothes and accessories.

Pope John, after leaving the airplane, would  bend over to kiss the ground. Twice in his trips to Korea this was his first greeting to Koreans, followed by saying "This is a land of the martyrs." With Pope Benedict, the Prada red shoes were the big interest. What seemed to be of interest when Francis went to Brazil was his carrying his little black bag onto the plane. Even when he was talking unreservedly to the Italian Premier Enrico Letta, he had this same bag with him.

Shouldn't there have been someone to carry it for him, the journalist asks, to quiet those who might think it rude that the pope has to carry his own bag? But the same thing occurred on his return to Rome. As we all know, this behavior is nothing new. He paid his own bill at the place where he stayed during the conclave and carried his own bags. He refused a private car and traveled by bus with the other Cardinals. The informality shown by the pope is very attractive to the ordinary Catholic, some of whom have said they now find going to church a joyful experience.

The Journalist recalls a recent trip to the United States, where he visited a Korean parish in Virginia. The occasion was the blessing  of the Church after remodeling was finished, and the bishop was there for the blessing. The Korean parishioners were outside waiting for the bishop to arrive in a small faded silver-colored car. His massive frame appeared, with some difficulty, from behind the drivers seat, and proceeded to the trunk of the car, taking out a big bag on wheels, which he dragged to the place of greeting. The Sunday school students greeted him with bouquets of flowers. He greeted them with a hearty laugh. He dragged the bag up the steps and disappeared inside the church. There was nobody, the journalist said, who drove the car for him nor anybody who carried his bags. Can this, by any stretch of the imagination, the journalist asks, be called rude behavior?

The journalist wonders what would it be like if the pope's personal manner of behaving, which is very attractive to many, became the normal way of doing things by the bishops of the Church--riding in buses and carrying their own bags, for example.

Symbols, especially in Catholicism, are very important. The whole sacramental system is built on symbols, which can speak loudly to Catholics. Pope Francis is using the language of symbols, whenever he chooses to respond non-verbally to the duties of his pontificate--taking buses and carrying his own bag, for instance--and whenever he chooses to relate non-verbally to the Catholic faithful, but nonetheless with a clear message, as he did by taking the name 'Francis.' Few observers will miss the shock value of such unexpected behavior. How much of these symbols will be understood to be the message of Jesus, may be another matter.

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