What ‘Humility’ Means for the Papal Staff

I recently got to tour the papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo, and it was a remarkable experience. They were too lovely for my poor powers of description.

Everything we passed was papal property. Papal olive groves, papal greenhouses, papal cypresses; the ancient remains of the imperial summer palace; and, yes, papal chickens and cows! There was even, I kid you not, a papal car train – I mean a little white train of open touring cars pulled by a car whose engine was shaped like a train engine, with steam pipe and all! And, jealousy of jealousies, there is a little convent school smack in the middle of the gardens for the children of the town.

Why Francis never spends time here escapes me. Maybe it reminds him too much of latifundia in Argentina. I would never leave!

Speaking of Francis, I was told by a priest here that the Holy Father has visited a handful of times but has never spent the night or greeted the staff, only stopping to consult the Jesuits in residence. That’s rather bad manners, I should think. It takes only a little magnanimity to imagine what a papal visit means to the staff here. They keep the place in pristine readiness all year round, eagerly awaiting the pope’s arrival, as their fathers’ fathers have done proudly for generations, and His Holiness won’t deign to stop by for the evening! I mean, he has an image to keep up, but isn’t this a bit snobbish? The poor people there have had to open the gardens and palace to tourists just to find something to do with the place and replace lost revenue.

Father also mentioned that he felt a bit sorry for the townspeople, because with the papal court no longer summering at the palace, the local economy is taking a hard hit. Usually, the entire Vatican is run from the palace from June to October, and the restaurants do good business with the influx of papal staff. No longer. “I guess the papal gardener is in a very enviable position!” “That’s right – it’s actually a hereditary position. Like many of these jobs, they’ve been in the same family for generations.”

These revelations added a layer: the merciless enforcement of mercy under Francis’s pontificate has more concrete ramifications in Rome for those who faithfully serve the papacy. It turns scores of talented people out of their jobs. From the great artists who wove the papal vestments and write the papal masses to the humble village family who has kept his garden for generations, there is a great cadre of people who give their lives in noble service to the Church.

Living in Rome makes you see just how true this is. Papal guards, papal sweepers, choristers, builders, etc., etc. surround the pontiff in a great constellation of virtuous devotion. You see the pride in their eyes. They are humbly conscious that their daily work goes toward magnifying the descendants of Peter and making possible not only a fitting liturgical splendor, but even his basic safety and livelihood.

But what are such people to do when Francis refuses — out of humility, it is said — to make use of their services? I suppose the same that true artists did when the episcopate stopped requiring their services for fine liturgical art and started asking for felt banners instead.

We don’t often comprehend this side of things. When Francis (or any bishop, for that matter) refuses to step into the traditional forms of the papacy, it is more than just turning down the dubious offer of an expensive suit from Madison Avenue or a large corporate bonus; it means turning hundreds of good people and true artists out of work, or what’s worse, out of a centuries-long tradition of devoted service. Shouldn’t someone from a developing country know that it is basic social etiquette for the rich to employ the poor, and a true mark of honor to employ as many as possible? Maybe it’s something a bourgeois mind can never understand – the pride people can take in service (or just proximity) to a noble house.

But the sad fate of Castel Gandolfo’s merchant and service class is emblematic of the experience of faithful Catholics everywhere. The same papal pride is at work when he does not deign to operate through the established channels of canon law and curial procedure, but forges ahead on his brave new path alone: he is giving his entire organization and its accumulated wisdom (whatever its flaws!) a vote of no confidence. Or when he ridicules traditional devotions and clothing, or the Church’s own traditional service of prayer. He is telling Catholics, “No, thank you. Move along. No help needed here.” This is not how the rich landlord in the Gospel hired workers: sparingly, saying to the last, “I couldn’t possibly be seen hiring so many! It would ruin my image!” He hired and paid them in full even in the afternoon.

But isn’t Francis’s pontificate a healthy step back from the Baroque splendor that obscured the true pastoral role of the fisherman? Perhaps. However, another experience a few days later changed my mind.

I went to papal vespers at St. Paul Outside the Walls, and it was a huge event.

I’ve been to pontifical liturgies in the old rite before, so I didn’t expect to be impressed. But the effect was really awe-inspiring, and the antique basilica aesthetic finally made absolute sense to me. Anyone standing far in the back can only but glimpse the figures of the pope and his entourage ranged round the back of the huge apse, the figures only and nothing of their features. But if he only looks up to the great arch, he sees Christ arranged in state with his apostles, directly above the clergy. The effect is indescribably powerful: the individuals and their personalities disappear, and all of a sudden, one is confronted with a vast image of the cosmos in beautiful symmetry: Christ and his apostles there, the pope and his clergy here on Earth, we the people gathered before his face. The altar planted in the middle of it all.

Add to all that the stately majesty of the antiphonal office (such as it is now), alternating in august rhythm between the schola and the massive assembly, and you have the most overwhelming sense of peace, order, proportion, protection, unity you can imagine. I even forgot for a moment who was wearing the papal mitre and stole. He could have been anyone. He looked a bit like a statue of Innocent III I had seen earlier. But here he was only the representative of the High Priest of the Universe, and we the people entrusted to him. Behold the incredible power of the Church and her liturgy: that no matter the character of the pontiff at the helm, the liturgy and its overwhelming power can keep the flock united, can still valiantly proclaim the presence of the Kingdom through the clouds of human vanity.

What a humble service the pope was performing! Completely effacing himself to be girded with the symbolism of Mother Church.

We democratic people are not attuned to this sort of service. We prefer the smiling face, the direct engagement, the gratification that comes from personal contact. These are all absolutely indispensable acts of charity; when done in imitation of Christ, we should see that their spiritual magnificence is truly regal.

But the hierarchy, and especially the papacy, have in addition to this role a liturgical and symbolic role whose importance perhaps outstrips the office of humble service. By letting their personal features, peculiarities, and agendas recede against the background of inherited symbolic forms of the divinely established hierarchy, they allow themselves to become awesome instruments of grace and visible manifestations of the presence of God’s Kingdom on Earth.

We should pray that God give us holy and humble popes and rid us finally of all the pretensions of papal absolutism. But we must also ask for popes willing to step into their liturgical roles, and thereby become sources of consolation and Catholic unity of untold power.

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