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Pope Francis may eschew many trappings of his office

March 15, 2013|By Henry Chu
  • Pope Francis greets Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone during a meeting of the cardinals.
Pope Francis greets Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone during a meeting… (Vatican Press Office )

VATICAN CITY -- Like a man who has somehow won the lottery against his will, newly appointed Pope Francis has already begun refusing some of the privileges of office, in keeping with the austere, almost ascetic ways he has pursued as a Jesuit priest.

For his unveiling as pope Wednesday to a throng in St. Peter’s Square, he shunned a special red, fur-trimmed half-cloak and golden cross in favor of plain white vestments and his usual iron cross. To go pray at a church in central Rome on Thursday, he hopped into a Vatican sedan, not the papal limousine. He prefers a simple miter to more elaborate, richly decorated headgear.

Such actions are new to the Vatican and to a church often decked in pomp and pageantry, and the new pope may soon be tested in how far he can take them.

“He’s trying to be himself, not to change himself. But at the same time he’s completely aware of his role, of his Petrine ministry,” said Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, referring to the pope's role as heir to St. Peter. “He’s trying to find a balance.”

Many of the faithful are already marveling at their new leader’s refreshing simplicity, his radical sense of equality and distaste for outward show. But such values can sit uneasily within an institution noted for its strict hierarchy and, in some quarters, a very worldly splendor.

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, brought back the ermine-trimmed elbow-length cloaks and winter hats and other ceremonial garb that had fallen into disuse.

Not for Francis the red leather shoes favored by Benedict. Indeed, the Catholic newspaper Avvenire reported that a priest at the cathedral in Buenos Aires banded together with some friends to buy a pair of new shoes for the then-archbishop before he left for the papal conclave in Rome because his footwear looked so embarrassingly tattered.

But even as the head of what is essentially Europe’s last absolute monarchy, Francis is already discovering that his power, and his insistence on humble practice, has limits.

On his visit Thursday morning to the St. Mary Major church in downtown Rome to pray, he rode in a modest Vatican car with only a small security detail, eschewing the papal Mercedes (license plate “SCV 1”) and a police escort. When the guards in charge of his safety moved to close off the basilica to the public, the pope asked that it be kept open.

Nothing doing.

“The gendarmes of the Vatican said no,” said an employee at the church who declined to give his name. “The pope wanted it open, but the wish of the pope was not obeyed.”

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Times staff writer Janet Stobart in Rome and special correspondent Tom Kington in Vatican City contributed to this report.

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