It’s been two weeks already since Pope Benedict’s visit, so some postgame analysis now seems in order. Starting with the red shoes. Did you see them? I got a close look during his meeting with the college presidents, see above. Fab. A far cry from the “shoes of the fisherman” circa 33 A.D. when Peter became the first Pope. Peter was probably more Teva than Prada.
Much was made of the papal couture on display during this visit. Benedict seemed to win over many fans from among the skeptics simply by stepping out in those red shoes, natty white coat and sumptuous vestments. In a Church where change is measured in millennia, the small details of the leader’s sartorial choices can carry great meaning.
Should we care what the Pope wears? Shouldn’t we focus on more serious issues? Of course, to the latter question, but in the Church as in many social structures, clothing is deeply symbolic, and attention to details like the height of the mitre and color of the mozzetta (the white cape trimmed with ermine in Paschal season, red velvet with ermine at other times) signifies the importance of the tradition represented in the cloth. Some people seemed to think that Benedict’s fondness for older traditional vestments might reflect his inherent conservatism; that may be true, but I think he may also understand that people like feeling connected to grand rituals and traditions, and that opens the gate for the teachings that follow.
The Pope’s visit surprised many people because he came across as gentler, more pastoral, less threatening than expected. He even seemed to enjoy the crowds. From the minute he bounded down the steps of “Shepherd One,” putting those stylish red loafers onto American soil, Benedict seemed to exude vitality, a noteworthy quality considering he observed his 81st birthday while here. While certainly different from his charismatic predecessor John Paul II, Benedict was able to win not only respect but even affection through the way he conducted the visit and the messages he conveyed.
Certainly, his style did not get in the way of his purpose. He stepped right into the most serious crisis the Church has faced, the devastation of priests abusing children, and he took ownership of the problem and signalled the need for the U.S. Bishops to address it with even more fervor. In his outreach to leaders of many faiths, he broke some new ground, particularly with his visit to a synagogue in New York, while still unable to mend fences with the Muslim community. His numerous speeches are well worth reading, and videos are also available on several websites.
In his remarks to the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities, as well as Catholic K-12 schools, Pope Benedict surprised his audience by thanking us for the profoundly important good work we already do, even as he challenged us to do even more. He used a particularly interesting phrase, “intellectual charity,” to describe the qualities our work should reflect in a society where so much knowledge is fragmented, where individuals are often disconnected from true community: “This aspect of charity calls the educator to recognize that the profound responsibility to lead the young to truth is nothing less than an act of love. Indeed, the dignity of education lies in fostering the true perfection and happiness of those to be educated. In practice “intellectual charity” upholds the essential unity of knowledge against the fragmentation which ensues when reason is detached from the pursuit of truth. It guides the young towards the deep satisfaction of exercising freedom in relation to truth, and it strives to articulate the relationship between faith and all aspects of family and civic life.”
The shoes of the fisherman have come a long way from Peter’s hide-bound sandals to Benedict’s highly-polished red loafers. But the messages of the faith are constant: charity, hope, truth, faith.