Rich and Poor

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis & his Ford Focus

Pope Francis today issued his first written document, the Evangelii Gaudium and in it he takes on an issue of concern in many parts of the world, the growing gap between rich and poor. “How can it be”, he writes,  “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” The Pope’s “apostolic exhortation” is in large part a stinging rebuke of unbridled capitalism, juxtaposing the real lives of the poor with the focus on ever increasing wealth. Pope Francis practices what he preaches, living in a modest guest house rather than in the ornate Apostolic Palace and riding around Rome in a used Ford Focus.  Last month he suspended a German bishop who had spent lavishly on remodeling and decorating his residence.

This week-end the Swiss voted on one of their many national voter referendums, this one stipulating that CEO’s could not earn more than 12 times the pay of their lowest-paid employee.  The measure did not pass, but that it even came up for a vote in a country that values highly the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates its rich multinational firms is an indication of how wide-spread the concern over the increasing gulf between rich and poor is in many European countries. In fact the Swiss passed a referendum in March that already placed restrictions on CEO pay.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the NY Times pointed out in an article this week-end, the mere mention of “redistribution” is political poison.  The article points out that a leading candidate to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Rebecca Blank, had her name withdrawn when it was learned that 10 years earlier she had not only used the word in print but had dared to assert, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system”.  A statement in harmony with Pope Francis’s epistle and one that Christians would seem obligated to support, but seemingly so out of step with American popular opinion that not even a Democratic White House could embrace it.

Getting clean feet

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 5.25.04 PMMany cultures have rituals to indicate respect, through body movement such as bowing or through using gestures, as in shaking hands. Less common are those involving feet, although of course in many cultures etiquette (and sanitation) call for removal of shoes when entering a house.  A ritual that has been in the news this Easter weekend is foot washing (“Maundy”), a Christian tradition conveying respect and humility.  Many denominations engage in foot washing on Maundy Thursday as part of Holy Week, recalling Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It’s clearly an action that creates a dramatic social leveling between the participants.  In fact, the word Maundy apparently derives from Latin mendicare, to beg.  Apparently, the practice goes back to ancient traditions of hospitality, when guests were given water to wash their feet.

Foot washing is traditionally practiced in the Catholic Church, including the Pope washing feet on Maundy Thursday.  The feet the Pope washes are exclusively attached to males, as the disciples were all men.  Hence surprise this week when new Pope Francis washed the feet of two women.  They were inmates of a youth prison in Rome and one of the girls was a Muslim.  The action was received positively by many, as a further signal that this Pope is charting a quite different course from his predecessor, with less importance attached to pomp and ceremony and more to inclusivity and outreach.  However, traditionalists are dismayed, as they have been by other actions by Francis that go against Catholic tradition.  There is even the fear that including women in foot washing could be a small step towards the ordination of women as priests.  It will be interesting to see if the Pope opens up significantly to other religions in meaningful ways. Comment from Scott Simon (NPR): “Sometimes great change can be revealed in small gestures.”

Habemus Papam

white_smokeFor the first time, a South American, Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina will be the Pope, taking the name Francis. Electing a new pope involves of course a host of traditional rituals and practices, most of which have remained the same for centuries.  Modernizations such as use of cell phones or social media are taboo.  From a cultural perspective, the process is particularly interesting in its linguistic and non-verbal dimensions.  As was the case when Pope Benedict announced his surprise resignation, Latin is the language used to announce the election of the pope (habemus Papam – we have a pope), with the name of the new pope Latinized, including having his first name put into the accusative case. Speakers of language which don’t use a lot of inflections (like English) often have a hard time with proper names being declined.  Dealing with names in context is always a stumbling block for learners of Russian, for example.

The non-verbal communication surrounding the election of the pope is extensive. As soon as the cardinals emerge from the conclave, one can identify visually the new pope by the fact that he is the only one dressed in white. There was a lot of debate after Pope Benedict’s resignation about what color his vestments would be, white, red or black.  Even more interest was generated by his shoes – he will be giving up the red shoes typically worn by popes (symbolizing the blood of the Christian martyrs).  The other interesting non-verbal message involved in the process is the use of smoke signals, not the array of signals used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples, but simply black smoke from the Vatican chimney for a ballot round with no winner or white smoke indicating Papam habemus.