Pope Francis has 3 shawls from me in his collection. Indeed, it has been a pleasure to meet him three times, including the occasion I had of concelebrating with him in the Chapel of “ Sancta Marta”. I happened to be the only Bishop among the concelebrants that day, and so the place at the Pope’s right, was mine, almost by right. However, even before the Mass began, when I was led into the sacristy to vest, I was in for a big surprise. Pope Francis was there, all alone, as I walked in. With great joy, he gave me a big fraternal hug. I could not have asked for anything better than that brief conversation before Mass.
After Mass, which I concelebrated with him, being at his right, I was again the first one to have a tête-a-tête with him. At this brief tête-a-tête, we had some nice things to talk about, mostly about my one and only island-diocese in India, far flung in the Bay of Bengal. In the course of the brief conversation, I asked him for a special message for a friend of mine who, knowing that I was going to meet the Pope, had requested me to ask the Pope for a special blessing for him. This friend of mine is quite a celebrity in our country as well as abroad, and he is a great admirer of Pope Francis. I had the message with a Blessing typed out and ready in my pocket, with a pen for the Pope to sign with. I spoke to the Pope about this friend of mine, and his desire to have a special Blessing from the Holy Father, and showed him the brief message of Blessing I had taken with me. He read it, and immediately asked me for a pen. I gave it to him, and he signed it. The joy of the friend for whom the message was meant, knew no bounds, as he sent it round the world with his Face-book. He has given it a place of honour, framing it, and putting it up in his house.
The last time I met the Pope was last June. It was at the Wednesday General Audience. Naturally, for me, as well as for my people and for my friends, it is big and happy news, each time I tell them that I am going to meet the Pope. They always keep wishing they could come along with me. I also wish the same, but as it is rightly said, “ If wishes were horses, beggars would ride them”.
This last Audience was out in the open on St. Peter’s Square, on the steps of the Basilica. It was a very windy morning, and my skull-cap flew off with the wind. One of the Bishops, on whose lap it landed, gave it back to me, and I wore it. The Pope’s skull-cap also flew away with the wind. When the attendant gave it back to him, he did not want to wear it again, because he knew the wind would take it away again.
The exciting thing about a Papal Audience, is always to have the photographs with the Pope, not so much for me, as for the people and friends who wait for them. When I sent some copies of these photographs to some of my friends, one of them thought, and said to me that the Pope did not look like the Pope without the skull-cap!
Years ago, when I was a new Bishop, I used to wear the skull-cap, the Mitre, and carry a Staff in my hand, during the liturgical celebrations. I wore the Mitre only for the entrance procession, and then put it away, to take it and put it on again for the final Blessing and for the Recession. I just cannot imagine myself preaching with my Mitre on! After a couple of years, I discontinued the practice, certainly not out of disrespect for these articles, but because I saw no real meaning in them. In Mathew 10:5ff and Lk. 9:1ff Jesus sends his 12 Apostles on their mission. He says to them: “ Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff...” Given these instructions, it is difficult to envision that he would ask them to take a Mitre!
I remember, when our Diocesan evaluation was done by Rev. Fr. Sebastiraj, s.j., in preparation for our entry into the Great Jubilee Year-2000, some of our people put up their request, saying that they would like to see their Bishop with a Mitre, and carrying the Staff. But I guess they were good and wise enough to think that the “ habit does not make a monk”. And so, although I wear only the skull-cap, and not the Mitre, and do not carry the Staff, my people have accepted me, and recognised me as their Bishop, even without the Mitre and the Staff.
Pope Francis is a man who has been talking about making the Church more Christ-like. He wants her to be the poor Church and the Church for the poor. The Mitre seems to me to be a relic of the Middle-ages, when the Bishops were crowned like the kings of old. Today, the Pope challenges us to live simple and poor lives. In one of his elocutions to the Curia, Pope Francis pointed to the Crucifix, and told the Curia members that they must give up any semblance of careerism. Pointing to the Crucifix, he said that their only promotion should be to the Cross. I dare say that some of the Curia people, whom I have known, are miles away from this attitude of the Pope and of Jesus Himself.
Jesus was crowned with a crown of thorns, and nailed naked to the cross. I would have expected Pope Francis to do away with the unnecessary externals, like the Mitre and the Staff, from the Church’s culture because he has shown himself to be poor and simple. But I guess we cannot expect everything from the same Pope. It took someone like Pope Paul VI to give up the tiara, the crown which used to be worn by Popes, from as early as the 8th century. It was last worn by Pope Paul VI in 1963, only at the beginning of his Pontificate. Then came Pope John Paul II, now Saint, who did away with the “ sedia gestatoria”, the ceremonial throne on which the Popes used to be carried by people on their shoulders, much like our Indian “ doli”. Pope John Paul II had shown himself to be a man of the masses, who enjoyed being with the masses. He always felt very comfortable with the crowds, and wanted to be in their midst always. He would not be able to be that, sitting on the “ sedia gestatoria”. In fact, I remember, being in Rome at that time, how his mingling with the crowds, posed a big problem for his Security Staff.
Pope Francis has done much to bring in simplicity, but as they say, “the wheels of the Church grind but slowly”. I am sure that some Pope will come who will discard these unnecessary ceremonials. I remember that, at one of our General Body Meetings, a Bishop suggested we give up the Mitres, and become simple Bishops. He had referred to the Mitre as a ‘ funny- looking hat which we wear”. Immediately two Archbishops jumped up in defence of the Mitre, saying that we wear it, not because we like it, but because of our people! I am sure our people will accept us as their Bishops, even without our Mitres and Staffs, provided we act like Jesus, being their Shepherds, and nothing more.
I am reminded of something a late senior Bishop, who was strongly in favour of the use of the Mitre, told me years ago. There was a solemn Eucharistic Celebration with many Priests and Bishops participating. As the procession began to move towards the Church, people had lined up both sides, many of them taking photographs. When the Bishops, all wearing their Mitres, reached the place where there were youth lining the path of the procession, he heard the young boys say: “ Abhi joker log aa rahe haim”.
Connected to the above, is also our holding on to our titles like “ Your Eminence, Your Grace, Your Lordship, Your Excellency..............” These certainly come in the way of a friendly conversation a person would like to have with the Bishops. In public meetings, a lot of time is wasted by using these titles to address the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops. Even at the C.B.C.I. meetings, a number of times this reminder has been given to the Bishops to drop the titles. They remember it only for a while, and then go back to the titles! Poor Jesus, our Chief Shepherd did not have any of these titles, although he would have deserved all of them and more. He came to serve, and not to be served. Do we, the Bishops, not want to be simple and approachable, like Jesus was?
A new function of the Mitre and Staff
It has happened to me a number of times that, on my Pastoral Visits, I have had to walk through hills, valleys, fields and marshy areas. Those can be dangerous walks, especially when the terrain is slippery. One walks better with a good walking stick. At one of my Pastoral visits, someone took some photographs of mine, trousers folded up to the knee, walking in the slush. And this ‘someone’ sent those photographs to many of my friends. Using the modern-day language, I would say that those pictures went viral among many of my friends. Some of them commented that I really looked like a shepherd going after his sheep.
Yes, indeed, that would be a better function of the Staff of a Bishop. In fact, I can well imagine Jesus walking about with a walking stick, with his disciples, as he went from place to place to proclaim His Father’s kingdom. He could have needed an aid to walk all those distances he covered on foot, plucking and eating the grain of wheat in the fields, with his disciples. A walking stick would certainly be an excellent aid, in a situation like that. A Bishop would do better to go in search of his sheep with a walking stick, rather than walk with the Staff during the liturgical celebrations.
Nowadays, teachers as well as parents are advised to spare the rod, even if that means spoiling the child. In fact, in the classrooms, the teachers are not even to stare at the children threateningly, leave aside caning the children. If Jesus were a Shepherd today, I am sure he would use a Staff, not threateningly, but as an aid to walk without falling. And his Mitre would have been more like our Indian “pagddi” to protect himself from the scorching sun. With these new meanings, both the Mitre as well as the Staff would be more acceptable, simply because they would be more functional. Let us remember the great late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the famous Archbishop of Milan, who reminded us, just before he died, that our Churches and our Vestments are rich, but the worshippers are few and dwindling.(Published on 08th October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 41)