Skip to main content

Pope Francis' gestures strike fire in our hearts

By Steven Avella, Special to CNN
updated 6:20 PM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
Swiss guards stand in St. Peter's Square before the Easter celebrations at the Vatican on Sunday, March 31. Pope Francis led his first Easter Sunday celebrations with a Mass marking the holiest day in the Christian calendar. Swiss guards stand in St. Peter's Square before the Easter celebrations at the Vatican on Sunday, March 31. Pope Francis led his first Easter Sunday celebrations with a Mass marking the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steven Avella: Pope Francis has used bold gestures to signal changes to come
  • Avella: Francis believes in simplicity and has embodied it in his actions and words
  • When words and rituals come together well, it can strike fire in human hearts, he says
  • Avella: Francis faces many challenges ahead, like repairing the church's credibility

Editor's note: Steven M. Avella is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a professor of history at Marquette University.

(CNN) -- Franklin D. Roosevelt had his Hundred Days.

Papa Francesco has had a little less than a month. Yet, like FDR, he has used bold gestures to alert the world that things in the Catholic Church would not be returning to business as usual.

For Catholics, images conveyed in a genuine way can be symbols of deeper realities. We are a sacramental church. God speaks to us through his word, but that word is often accompanied by ritual, gesture and symbol.

Steven Avella
Steven Avella

Pope Francis really believes in simplicity. So far, he has waved off any vestige of opulence (gold pectoral crosses and ermine lined mantles), walks rather than rides in a chauffeured limo, and for now at least refuses to live in the Apostolic Palace (a complex oxymoron, what apostle ever lived in a palace?). He chooses to live in a less pretentious guest house.

He invokes the patron saint of evangelical poverty, St. Francis, but this also comes from his Jesuit formation. The vow of poverty and the commitment to the poor is taken seriously among the Sons of Loyola—at least the ones I know. Forming young people to be "men and women for others" is not an idle slogan for a lamppost banner. Jesuits really do it and do it well.

Pope Francis washes youths' feet at detention center

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This may seem to the cynical a mere show or public relations, and a few of those cynics are in the church. But something tells me this is the real thing. This is how he lived in Buenos Aires. He could have had a palace and all the accoutrements of fine living, and yet he chose something else—something simple, and closer to the people he wished to serve.

On Thursday, he washed the feet of young juvenile offenders at a detention center in Rome. Among them were two women; one of them was a Muslim. Let Catholics around the world take note. I can only marvel at this generous and loving gesture.

But in Catholic life, rituals are usually accompanied by words. Sometimes the words are difficult to understand or are prayed in flat and boring tones as though the celebrant doesn't believe them. But when word and ritual come together in the best way, it can strike fire in human hearts.

Pope Francis has uttered some marvelous words to accompany his actions. To his frail predecessor, "We are brothers." To the gardeners and janitors of the Vatican, "If we have a closed heart, we have a heart of stone." To priests, an exhortation to "pray over the realities of the everyday lives" of their parishioners, and "their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes." To the young people at the prison, "Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do and I do it with my heart."

Why did the pope wash prisoners' feet?

Pope Francis visits a youth prison
Pope Francis marks Good Friday

Simple, direct words from the heart of a pastor—words people can and will remember because they are accompanied by actions.

Eventually, the novelty of all this will fade, but the tasks ahead for the Catholic Church will not. Repairing its shattered credibility, especially with the young, will be awaiting Pope Francis each morning with his coffee.

Who will advise him? What kinds of men will he choose as bishops? How strong will he be in the face of certain opposition within and outside the church? We will see. "Francis, rebuild my church," said the Lord to the Poverello of Assisi. Pope Francis I'm sure also hears this same, "small, still, voice."

But perhaps we are in for even more surprises. The new pontiff has yet to complete the ritual of taking possession of his four basilicas in Rome. These highly ritualized events are accompanied by droves of cardinals and other clerics and offer the pope an occasion to say a few words to mark the occasion.

Opinion: Pope Francis' humble superiority

It was during one such ceremony in January 1959, at St. Paul Outside the Walls, that Pope John XXIII shocked the world by calling for an ecumenical council.

Could Pope Francis do the same? If he did, another Roosevelt --Teddy--might say, "Bully! " So would I.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Avella.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT