No one noticed it, during and after Francis’s journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh, immoderately focused on the situation of the Rohingya. But in Dhaka, on December 1, the patriarch of the Bengali Buddhists, Sanghanayaka Suddhananda Mahathero, addressed his homage to the pope by recalling with admiration this specific action:
“I will never forget the image of Your Holiness when you washed the feet of the young African refugees. You, Holy Father, have attained the stature of the great, and you are a great example for me.”
If there was a need for yet another confirmation of the global communicative power of Pope Francis, here it is.
In effect, the washing of the feet that he performs every Holy Thursday, during the Mass “in coena Domini,” for prisoners, immigrants, men, women, transexuals of every ethnicity and religion, is a gesture of extraordinary media efficacy.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio is so aware of this that in order to increase its impact he does not hesitate to push beyond the rules that he himself has set for this rite, according to which it should be performed only with members of the Catholic Church.
While vice-versa there is not the least bit of news, so much is it disregarded, on the Mass “in coena Domini” within which Francis performs the washing of feet, the opposite of what happened with with previous popes and in particular with Benedict XVI, who at this Holy Thursday Mass delivered very intense, memorable “mystagogical” homilies, a guide to the mystery.
For Francis, in fact, another set of priorities applies, which always puts in first place the action of mercy, invariably manipulated for its greatest communicative efficacy, even at the cost of contradicting itself.
For example, he made news three days after his election as pope when he declined to impart his blessing to the journalists from all over the world who were packed into the audience hall, “respecting,” he said, “the conscience of each, since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers.”
Thunderous applause greeted this surprise move by the pope, whom many admired for his delicate discretion.
But just two weeks later Francis did exactly the opposite. On the first Holy Thursday of his pontificate, not only did he impart his blessing without any scruple to the young prisoners whom he had gone to visit, even though quite a few of them were non-Catholic, but he even celebrated Mass in front of them.
But that’s just it, his priority was elsewhere, and he successfully asserted it. The action that made news all over the world was the pope’s washing of the feet of a dozen young prisoners, some of whom, including a Serbian woman, were Muslim. (And at the time there was still a liturgical ban – later lifted by Francis himself – on washing the feet of women, out of the need to imitate the action of Jesus who performed it with the apostles).
The liberties that Francis takes with the liturgy for communication purposes are also valid for him when it comes to Sacred Scripture.
Settimo Cielo has already pointed out, for example, how in a morning homily at Santa Marta Francis attributed to Saint Paul the words, “I boast only of my sins,” and also invited those listening to him to give the same kind of “scandal,” meaning to boast of one’s sins in that they have been forgiven by Jesus.
And this in spite of the fact that in none of his letters did Paul ever say the words in question, but if anything, in two instances (2 Corinthians 11:30 and 12:5), something different: “I will boast of my weaknesses,” after listing all of the travails of his life, the imprisonments, floggings, persecutions, insults, shipwrecks.
But “boasting of one’s sins” is more appealing to Francis. It makes a bigger splash. And in fact he said it again two days ago, on Thursday, December 7, at the end of the Mass for the 90th birthday of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, again putting them into the mouth of Saint Paul:
“Saint Paul even boasted of his sins, because the glory goes to God alone, and we are weak, all of us.”
In this same celebratory address, Francis congratulated Cardinal Sodano for being “ecclesially disciplined.”
But the pope knows well that it is lack of discipline that makes more news.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)