In the Catholic Church, no gesture is empty. Just ask Robert Ventresca.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio – Pope Francis I – stepped out on the balcony to greet the masses below in St. Peter’s Square for the first time following his election last week, Ventresca, a History professor at King’s University College and author of Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII, saw a difference in tone, one that was “immediately evident.”
“Benedict (XVI) had a more reserved, cautious public face. Already, with Francis, we’re seeing a more relaxed, informal, direct and personal style. He seems to have a pastor’s instincts,” he said.
Ventresca noted when Francis stepped outside on the balcony, he departed from tradition, wearing a white cassock. The new pope asked the crowd to pray for him before he offered a benediction, bowing his head.
“It’s a subtle and profound gesture of humility. His first words were ‘bonasera,’ (good evening) with a smile. And he stretched out his hands. He just stood there in the simple white cassock – it’s symbolic. No gesture is empty in Catholicism,” Ventresca explained.
“This is a man who’s conscious he’s speaking to a large crowd. The language he has used was accessible, direct and simple, with warm, humane gestures.”
Michael Béchard, the chaplain at King’s, echoed his sentiments.
“He desires to put the Gospel into action. We’re going to hear the same message of Jesus being proclaimed again, but in a new and fresh way. We can look at Benedict’s writings about economics, but what makes it different with Francis, is that he’s lived in the midst of those situations,” Béchard said.
“There’s a change in tone of pastoral approach, a sense that it will be softer and more gentle.”
Francis , who has lived simply, cooking for himself and taking public transit, is the first pope from the Americas and the first to be a Jesuit; the former signals a papacy that will focus more on socioeconomic issues, while the latter is indicative of a renewed sense of evangelism and connection with the public, Ventresca explained.
It is a connection that may be tested right away, as he takes the top post of a church facing numerous challenges from internal governance and transparency issues to questions around church finances and a rash of sexual scandals and questions of its continued relevance. These are issues that will first be solved through communication.
“Francis is reaching out to be more communicative. It’s a pastoral question – how do you communicate what the church teaches? There will be renewed attention to how the message is communicated, learning how to communicate it in the context of the times,” Ventresca said.
In speaking to both the cardinals and the people, he continued, the new pope is conscious to break from conventions, to speak informally.
“He just seems to be putting an emphasis on the positive, optimistic, charitable face of the church. How you speak, the words you choose and the tone you choose can all make a difference. He seems to be sensitive to that. It speaks to someone who has spent his life as a pastor in parishes and communities. Benedict hadn’t been in a parish in decades,” Ventresca said.
Noting such shifts is not meant to be a criticism of predecessor Benedict, Ventresca continued, as it is simply a difference in tone and style. “Benedict was much more accessible than people think, but you can see in the public face of Francis that he’s much more attuned to the people.”
The pope’s name itself is indicative of a shift, he added.
“It’s (after) Francis of Assisi – a symbol of charity, humility and poverty, someone who preached the gospel. It’s an historic choice; the name has never been used. In a time of internal and external challenges, it feels like he is reaching into the church’s past and traditions to refresh, renew and turn a page,” he said.
“He’s someone who will understand papal power differently than some predecessors, and that’s what people, even the critics, seem to be responding to.”