It must be very difficult to be Pope today. He is up there alongside the Queen of England, and the President of the United States, in terms of world fame. I would argue that this was probably always the case but it has to be more intense in today’s world since the advent of social media. The American President tweets daily to his almost 60 million followers and in most cases, it provokes wide spread reaction. The Pope also tweets in different languages, although not personally, to around 47 million. When you take in the ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ the U.S. President (on his personal Twitter account mostly) has more interaction. The world watches famous people very closely and all they need to do is make a mistake and smart phones have the ability to share the unflattering picture or video. At the same time, Twitter for example, has afforded many famous names to set the record straight when a tabloid breaks a story the celebrity feels is untrue.
Pope Francis speaks and the world hears what he says. He is often misunderstood and while the sound-bite can make the headlines, the entire piece can get short-circuited. It was no different for Benedict XVI and indeed John Paul II. Certainly, the internet grew up during the pontificate of John Paul II. His homilies, speeches, and addresses, as well as his papal documents are readily available for download on the Holy See’s website. Thanks to the web, we have access to thousands of photos of popes with the faithful from all over the world. Today, it is popular for people who want to get the elusive ‘selfie’ with Pope Francis if they manage to get close to him. He himself would prefer no selfies if he had his way I imagine.
Recently, footage appeared that was shared on social media of Pope Francis receiving people who wanted to kiss the papal ring. It quickly made the mainstream media and news media. Some channels showed edited parts of the footage and not the whole piece. In it we see the Pope taking his right hand away from people as they lean down to kiss the papal ring. A far cry from the days when people would approach the papal throne and drop to the ground and his kiss the pope’s foot. Francis himself is far more eager to lean to kiss the feet of the sinner, and people who are broken of all faiths and none. This isn’t something he does for the cameras either. He has done this in the past in his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Since Pope John XXIII, we have seen more user-friendly papacies in terms of how human and approachable the Pope is. Pope John would chat to the gardeners and the workers in the Vatican. On the day he was elected Pope in 1958 (for which he wrote an entry in his diary) when he was dressing in the papal white, he removed his Cardinal’s scarlet skull-cap and placed it on a Monsignor (thus making him a Cardinal!) When John died in 1962, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan became Pope and took the name Paul VI and he began to dismantle the trappings of the papacy. He wore a more simple, modern ‘triple tiara’ at his inauguration and eventually preferred not to be carried around aloft in the Sedia Gestatoria. In August 1978 when Paul VI died, Cardinal Albino Luciani, Archbishop of Venice, was elected Pope and took the name John Paul. Although he was only Pope for thirty-three days, he refused to wear any triple tiara crown. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope on October 16th 1978 and took the name John Paul II and he was driven around in the now famous Pope Mobile. He wasn’t interested in people kneeling to kiss the papal ring and neither was Benedict XVI in his time (2005 – 2013)
Going back to the papal ring, when Pope St. Pius X (1835 – 1914) was ordained Bishop of Mantua in 1884, he went to see his mother, Margarita, at the family home in Riese where he grew up. As the neighbours called in to the little house to see the new bishop, they knelt to kiss the episcopal ring. His mother is said to have remarked as she showed the wedding ring on her left hand that he wouldn’t be wearing any bishop’s ring had she not first had her wedding ring.
I seem to recall hearing about the ceremony for the Episcopal Ordination in 2015 of Angelo De Donatis as Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese of Rome in the Lateral Basilica. Before the Pope put the ring on the finger of the new bishop and said the prayer, Francis quietly said to him; ‘Don’t forget the wedding rings of your parents and defend the family.’ Pope Francis has got the right idea in that he sees himself in a ministry of service and leads by example time and again. Any trappings of ministry must remind us, especially as we draw closer to Easter, that Jesus Christ came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matt 20:28)
The wedding rings of our parents, the symbols of commitment mean that from day one, they were our first teachers and that they taught us by example. Any one of rank, Pope, Cardinal, King, Queen, President, Prime Minister, etc., had a mother and a father or was brought up by a parent or guardian or a family who came from a family themselves.
Finally, returning to Margarita Sanson, the mother of Pope St. Pius X, and how she reminded her son ‘Bepi’ of her role in his vocation by showing him her wedding ring. Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers and grandmothers and remembering all mothers in heaven.