Symbolic Theology

June 10, 2013

Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson recently wrote a good column noting the powerful symbolism of Pope Francis. Here are a couple highlights from his piece:

The Catholic tradition, from catacombs to cathedrals, is filled with potent symbols. There is the cross, the fish, the dove and the lamb. There is Mary's blue, the purple of penance and the red of martyrs' blood. 
Francis excels at the symbolism of humility. He lives in a two-room apartment, dresses in simple white and speaks in direct, colloquial language. His assistant is reputed to carry a cellphone, making the pope callable, maybe. Francis has not yet issued sweeping declarations. But his symbolism has begun seeping into substance. He seeks a simpler church, more closely identified with the poor. 
... "This guy," says Stephen Schneck of Catholic University, "seems to be trying to be like Jesus, the image of Jesus in the Gospels." The one who brought good tidings to the poor, bound up the brokenhearted and proclaimed liberty to the captives. 
Whatever your view of Christianity, the example of Jesus remains one of history's most surprising constants. A man who never wrote a word, who spent three years teaching in an obscure corner of a vanished empire, still stirs the deepest longings of the human heart. When we see his image even partially reflected in another human being, it appeals beyond every political division.
Gerson is absolutely correct. It has been fascinating to watch Francis over the past few months. As a non-Catholic, I appreciate his potent symbolic lifestyle and actions that exude the basic gospel teachings. From living simply to abandoning ornate symbols of power to washing the feet of prisoners to celebrating Mass with gardeners and rubbish collectors, Francis has been a study in opposites from the lifestyle of his predecessor. With his lifestyle, Francis is communicating theology more significantly than he could through traditional papal declarations. As Gerson noted about Francis washing the feet of prisoners - including women and Muslims - on Maundy Thursday:
With due respect to Benedict's learning, Francis's symbolic act managed to more effectively communicate the essence of the Christian gospel.
Living out the teachings of Jesus means more than rehashing them. Gerson's line about Francis's lifestyle appealing "beyond every political division" is also an interesting idea. Perhaps the most effective political engagement for religious leaders is to live their faith. As Francis explained recently (as quoted in Gerson's column):
When the Church wants to throw its weight around and sets up organizations, and sets up offices and becomes a bit bureaucratic, the Church loses its principal substance and runs the risk of turning itself into an NGO [nongovernmental organization]. And the Church is not an NGO. It is a love story.
Amen!

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