I recently penned a review, posted on this site, of the 1968 film The Shoes of the Fisherman. In the article I attempted, naïvely I thought, to suggest that the principal character in the movie, Kyril Lakota, who became Pope Kyril I, might be viewed as a model for the new pontiff to be elected in the conclave following the resignation of Benedict XVI. Kyril, who had spent years as a political prisoner in a Siberian labour camp, brought a simpler, humbler spirituality to the Vatican upon his election to the Chair of Saint Peter.
From the moment of his election, it was clear that Kyril was going to be a prelate of a different colour. While retaining his more traditional views of doctrine and theology, Kyril acknowledged the brilliance of his friend, the free-thinking Father David Telemond, along with the young priest’s right to shape and express his unique theology. This attitude did not sit well with the doctrinaire Vatican establishment.
One of the first acts of the new pope was to “escape” from the Vatican in the cassock of an ordinary priest and wander about Rome on foot. While on this little adventure, Kyril was conscripted by a British doctor to purchase medicine for a dying man in a poor tenement. When the Bishop of Rome realized the man was Jewish, he put on his hat and began chanting, in Hebrew, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
And Kyril had little patience for the protocols so cherished by the members of his bureaucracy, the Roman curia. Like the real-life Paul VI, he eschewed the triple tiara traditionally placed on the heads of new popes at their coronation, and he made it quite clear to “the walking encyclopaedia of dogma,” Cardinal Leone, that he was not interested in giving audiences to every politico and cinema actor looking for a photo op with His Holiness.
Finally, as noted in my first article, Pope Kyril, in face of the virulent protests of his inner circle of cardinals, pledged all the wealth of the Church to feed the victims of famine in China.
At the end of my article, I expressed the (ludicrous) hope that the cardinals participating in the conclave would watch this film and allow the story of Kyril Lakota to influence their vote for a new pope.
The man they elected on March 13 following five rounds of voting, less than two days after the start of the conclave, appears to be the incarnation of the spirit of Kyril I. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio gave himself the name Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi, the twelfth-century Italian who so loved the poor. That no other pope in history had taken the name of this humble saint was one of the first signs that this pontificate was going to be different from the several that preceded it.
Here are some other Kyril-like signs that indicate a humbler role for the pontiff and perhaps for the Church:
- When Francis made his first public appearance, on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, he was wearing a simple white cassock. When the papal Master of Ceremonies moved to place on his shoulders the mozzetta, “a shoulder-length cape of red velvet trimmed with fur,” Francis refused the garment, allegedly saying, “I prefer not to.”
- In this same initial appearance, Francis, like an ordinary parish priest, asked the crowd to say with him the prayers familiar to all Catholics from childhood: the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Then, asking the crowd gathered in the square to pray for him, he bowed before them.
- “On his first full day as pope, he met with schoolchildren, picked up his bags at a hotel where he had stayed prior to the conclave, and paid his own bill.” (National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2013)
- While Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio lived in a small apartment rather than in the Archbishop’s palace, cooked his own meals, rode the bus to and from work, and was known for his love of the poor. One expression of this love was his annual washing and kissing of the feet of the poor at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
- In his first Sunday Mass following his election Francis chose to celebrate the liturgy at tiny St. Ann’s church in the Vatican. Following the Mass, which was mostly attended by Vatican staff and their families, the pope stood outside the doors of the church, again like any parish priest, greeting parishioners with handshakes, hugs, and kisses. When the church was empty, he turned and greeted the crowds of onlookers that had been contained behind barriers, again shaking hands with some and embracing others as nervous members of his security detail followed along.
- On March 26, the Vatican announced that Francis has decided not to move into the papal apartments but to remain living in the guest house where he has been since the beginning of the conclave. The pope said he preferred “to live in community with others.” According to Catholic News Service, “Pope Francis has been…taking his meals in the common dining room downstairs and celebrating a 7 a.m. Mass with Vatican employees in the main chapel of the residence.”
According to an editorial in The National Catholic Reporter, “Early indications are that things are going to be different. The heavy encrustations of royal paraphernalia and palace behavior are beginning to fall away. Francis, if first impressions prove correct, seems more inclined to embrace than wag a finger in rebuke.”
As I write this, Francis has been pope for less than two weeks, but already his apparently natural inclination toward “the common touch” has brought him closer to Catholics and non-Catholics, to tradition-oriented believers and progressive Catholics alike, than his two predecessors. In these brief moments at the dawn of his pontificate, Francis has shown himself to be far more like Kyril, the idealized pope of Morris West’s imagination, than like John Paul II or Benedict XVI. He has given to many the hope that the Vicar of Christ—and thus the Church itself—will become more like the Nazarene carpenter’s son than were the pontifical monarchs who reigned for thirty-five years.
“Habemus Papam” by Catholic Church (England and Wales). Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)