Andrew Sullivan calls me a reactionary and legalist (he is only half right) and describes Pope Benedict as “a fabulous flurry of fabric and jewellery,” about which he is altogether wrong.
Sullivan’s statement is typical of the belief that Pope Benedict has an inappropriate love for the fine, the beautiful, the luxurious. Often used to illustrate this point are the photos of the two popes’ first public appearances. In them we see one pope in fine garb, the other in simple cloth. Pomp gives way to purity.
Or does it? Take a closer look and you’ll see that while Benedict is wearing more elaborate vestments, his actual clothes are simpler than Francis’. He’s wearing a workmanlike black clerical shirt with button cuffs that make his arms disappear into the dark background. Visible on his left wrist is a plastic sports watch.
Francis, meanwhile, is sporting neatly starched white french cuffs anchored by gold links. Benedict donned more elaborate vestments for going out on the balcony, but the clothes he showed up in were much more humble than Francis’—almost to the point of embarrassment. In terms of dignified and appropriate dress, Francis may have gotten the better of his predecessor.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. While Benedict stressed the dignity and beauty of liturgy, his focus did not stem from a generic love of formality and fine things (the closest he got to luxury was probably bumming a ride in Hans Kung’s car). It instead sprang from a belief that Christ deserved honor, the same conviction that animated the woman who poured on our Lord’s feet “an alabaster box of very precious ointment.” Then, as now, such lavishness rankles:
When his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
“When Jesus understood it,” the evangelist continues, “he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.”