On his first full day on the job last week Pope Francis, according to media reports, went to the hotel where he was staying, packed his luggage, checked out and then climbed into a Volkswagen, rather than the papal limousine, for the trip back to the Vatican. Many people found that to be refreshingly humble. I thought about Jimmy Carter.
Carter was elected following the imploded presidency of Richard Nixon who, among other criticisms, many felt had become too imperial – having lost touch with the people. Carter wanted to change that image; he wanted to be just plain folk. We would see him climbing into Air Force One carrying his own suit bag and dressed in denim with a plaid shirt. It was interesting for public relations, but it backfired. Instead of showing the people that he wasn’t pompous, the voters became convinced that Carter wasn’t anything special. Significantly, Carter would be defeated in his first term by Ronald Reagan, a former actor who was skilled at being both folksy and regal.
Truth is people may want a touch of simplicity in their leaders, but they also want majesty. In his biography on Huey Long, historian T. Harry Williams told about the former governor being on the campaign trail in rural north Louisiana and pulling off a shoe to reveal a hole in his sock. He wanted to show the voters that he was poor just like them. Williams, however, pointed out, that at the same time Long always wore a diamond-studded tie pin to make it clear that he was above the people, too.
Imagine if the papal conclave had been different. What if instead of the Cardinals, in their magnificent robes and hats, entering the Sistine chapel with the paintings of Michelangelo above, they would have worn business suits and done their voting in a meeting room at the Rome Hilton? What if the agenda had consisted of a report from the nominations committee and then verification of the recommendation? What if the announcement would have been preceded by press releases rather than white smoke? Would we have been as interested in the outcome?
Vatican tradition has created good theater. The curia learned long ago that a bright star gathers the attention of the flock more effectively than a gray sky.
We wish the new pope well, especially in his mission of bringing relief to the world’s poor. In doing so, he will have to remember that no matter how humble his messsage may be, it is the grandeur that will draw attention to it.
Illustration courtesy of Marian Kamensky of Vienna, Austria (www.humor-kamensky.sk)