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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT