Yousuf Karsh portrait of Pius XII
the photo that created a papacy
When Father Spadaro asked him “who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis answered : “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” This is not the way most popes would have answered the question. Certainly, the Venerable Pius XII—the hero of the neo-trad movement, would never have answered the question that way. Pius very carefully crafted the mystique of the Pope as a living saint, a direct channel from God to humankind, God’s ambassador who was virtually indistinguishable from the Deity who sent him. I am old enough to have grown up with Pius and the papacy he fashioned and it was a remarkable theatric. Pius was, at least to the public eye, austere and remote. He was gifted with a lean—even gaunt—frame that would leave one to think he did not subsist on any earthly food. (He dined alone which helped keep this image intact.) From an old Roman noble family, Pacelli had the classic Roman aquiline nose and the ability of a born aristocrat to immediately dominate a room in such a way that anyone present immediately recognized their inferiority. Even as a young priest in the Vatican Diplomatic Corps, Pius had always been a stickler for the most minute points of protocol and as Pope he used the traditional trappings of office—the Tri-regnum (the triple tiara), the sedia gestatoria (the throne carried on the shoulders of twelve of the Pope’s Gentlemen of the Chamber), the flabella (the large ostrich-plum fans carried alongside the pope in procession) and the canopy carried over him on twelve poles held by monsignors. Pius brought in famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh to do his photo at prayer—an image that became perhaps the best known image of the Pope during his reign. In all this Pius set the gold standard for what Popes should be—or at least for what many since have thought popes should be. It was all a bit of an act. While Pius never let his public persona slip, in private he was a very practical man given to over-working (and micro-managing). He found great pleasure in the small birds he kept as pets and his long-time housekeeper, the German Franciscan nun, Mother Pasquilina, was a confidant, a mother, and a best friend to the very shy man who hid beneath the papal robes. All that was kept a secret, however, as long as he sat on the Throne of Peter. He would never have identified himself as a “sinner” as that would have undermined the mystique on which he built his power.
John XXIII would not have thought himself a sinner either—except when he was preparing to make his confession. John was not a person who seems to have focused much on sin. He had a basically positive view of human nature, including his own, and managed to see the good in people. His openness to others was an alarm bell for those in the Sacred College and the Roman Curia who were of a more pessimistic outlook such as Cardinals Ottaviani and Siri as they could see how this more positive anthropology would undermine the traditional structures on which their authority and power rested. It is difficult to use fear as weapon when you have a jolly captain running the ship.
Now Paul VI is the one pope in the last sixty years who might have seen himself as a sinner. Paul is my favorite of the popes of the last sixty-plus years and I think the holiest, but that is because we seem to share a strong Augustinian understanding of human nature, beginning with our own. Paul’s humor was wry –he was neither the jolly grandfather John XXIII or the witty entertainer John Paul II. The papacy sat heavy on Paul and he was a man whose conscience seems to have demanded an almost constant wrestling match. Sometimes referred to as a Papal Hamlet because of his pensiveness, I think Paul was more the Christ in the desert undergoing every test and temptation though, given the frailty of his human nature, without ever attaining the confident resolution with which his Master emerged after only forty days.
John Paul I we hardly knew, of course, and John Paul II—like John XXIII—would not have described himself as a sinner except when it was time to confess, or maybe occasionally in Lent. He might have let you know, however, that you are a sinner, though he would then quickly remind you of the Mercy of God. John Paul II had that Slavic single-focus that kept his attention on the work at hand rather than the inner-wrestling of the soul that characterized Paul VI. I think John Paul saw things in blacks and whites and his conscience was rarely troubled—even when it should have been. When something did fall into the “black” category for him I suspect he was most unlikely to yield and if he did, his clear and simplistic vision would have urged him simply to confess, do penance, and move on. While he eschewed the papal trappings of Pius XII, John Paul II in his own way marked a return to the unquestioned autocracy model of Pope, at least in public. In private he seems never to have gotten control of his Curia who used the Pope’s inability to comprehend the collegiality called for by Vatican II to garner power to their own bureaucracy. And this, of course, has led to the current Pope’s need to “reform” the Curia from the abuses of power to which it has accustomed itself.
Now Benedict XVI is another latter-day Augustinian and I would be sure that in his private life he is very much aware of his personal sinfulness—not that I would think it to be all that great, but as a truly humble person he is, I am sure, keenly aware of and even troubled by his faults and shortcomings. But I think Benedict tried to restore the magic of Pius XII and his revival of much of the old ceremonial and costuming of the pre-Conciliar era was an attempt to exalt, not himself, but the papacy to the status where it stood above human judgment. He failed of course; the world had changed too much in the intervening decades to take seriously the smoke and mirrors of bygone court ceremonial.
Those who felt that John Paul II and Benedict had recovered ground lost under Vatican II, John XXIII, and Paul VI would not want a pope who identifies himself first and foremost as sinner. There is no way better to undercut the majesty of the papal office and the power of its authority than to make such a declaration. This Francis—whether by living in a hotel, or declining even the most basic of papal vesture such as rochet and mozetta, or washing the feet of Muslim women on Holy Thursday—much less by calling himself a sinner—is making the glory days of papal monarchy impossible to restore. Not a happy time for those who want a new Pius XII. It’s unlikely that someone who calls themselves a sinner will hit your foes over the head with the Code of Canon Law.