Red Shoes or Black Shoes? Does It Matter?: On the Symbolism of Pope Francis

One thing that Benedict XVI understood was the power of a good symbol. Take the famous red shoes that Benedict was often seen wearing. What seemed to many non-Catholics to be a bizarrely fashionable choice for someone supposed to represent a poor carpenter put to death by the Roman state in some global backwater was actually a symbol for many conservative Roman Catholics and to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The red shoes was a sign of rank in imperial Rome and when the old imperial roles began to be taken up by the new Christian rulers after the legalization and institutionalization this sign of rank transferred from imperial Roman senators to the Pope. As a matter of tradition only the Pope could wear these shoes, not the Patriarch of Constantinople, symbolizing the position of the Vicar of Rome being above that of any other leader in the Christian church, Roman Catholic or otherwise. This decision to reinstate this symbolic use of shoes is completely in line with Benedict’s ecclesiology, a message that the other branches of Christianity were welcome to come back under the control of Rome but that Rome would not be changing in response in the light of any future reconciliation. There are a number of other symbolic gestures Ratzinger made and it seems right to me to classify some of the liturgical “reforms”, like the re-institution of the Latin Mass, under this symbolic gesture. For what it says is that all the opening up of the liturgy after Vatican II, most of which had been reversed anyway, is unequivocally shut down. Much of what characterized Benedict’s reign was a certain sedimentation of one particular reading of Vatican II (a reading that really was one of many despite what so many Benedict partisans proclaim, screeching about being beyond “conservative or liberal”). I don’t think we are going to see much change in the approach of the Magisterium to Vatican II, the story of that particular Council was decided, it seems to me, long before Benedict and he only cemented that reading. But Pope Francis has shown that he understands the power of symbolism as well and the symbols he has chosen to display are, within the parameters set out in the last post, somewhat hopeful.

There are a few obvious symbols, but obvious symbols chosen probably precisely because of their obviousness. First, no more red shoes. The style of leadership displayed by Benedict was simply authoritarian, even by the standards of the Papacy. For many Catholics whose own form of life differed from Benedict those red shoes were a sign of that authoritarianism, a sign of their tendentious place within their faith expressed by the leader of their Church. This change in shoes is not nothing, especially when coupled with the decision the night of his election to not wear the mozzetta (the red shawl-like piece of clothing, originally worn by the Roman Emperors). Indeed, a rumor went around after the election that he was offered the mozzetta by the MC and said “You can wear it! The carnival’s over.” Of course this has been denied by the Vatican, which has put out the official quote as Francis saying something maybe even better, more Bartleby-esque: “I would prefer you didn’t.”

Then there is the name chosen for the new Pope: Francis. Many of you will know that contemporary Popes chose their Papal name often with some symbolic purpose in mind, the name harkens back to some other figure, one whose character foreshadows the new Pope. There has never been a Pope Francis before though and so already we see Francis not symbolically harkening to a former Pope, but to one who never held power in the Roman Church before. Of course, it wasn’t clear when this was first announced if the choice of Francis referred to St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Society of Jesus (the order to which this Pope belongs), or to St. Francis of Assisi. But when it was announced that the name was, in fact, chosen because of St. Francis of Assisi we saw the most powerful symbolic move made by the Pope in his early days. St. Francis was never a Pope, but more than that he was never even a priest. Francis held no power within the Church at all except as a brother, and purposely eschewed such power. While it of course remains to be seen if this is anything but a symbol, it suggests a leadership style that disempowers itself, that aims to lead without recourse to the authoritarian style seen in Benedict XVI.

As I say, it isn’t clear if these symbols will be anything but symbols. But they do point to the possibility of an opening up of the structures of Catholicism, which may allow for more active forces to produce something through those structures. One more positive post and then I will turn to a more critical mode.

25 thoughts on “Red Shoes or Black Shoes? Does It Matter?: On the Symbolism of Pope Francis

  1. I think the Pope Francis was also refering St. Francis Xavier, one of the seven who founded the Society of Jesus in 1534. It seems to me that the idea would be to use the popular appeal of St. Francis of Assisi to increase the typical missionary zeal of the Jesuits (following St. Francis Xavier steps in India, Mozambique, New Guinea, Japan…).

  2. Lol maybe so, maybe so. Still. I haven’t seen him being too ostentatious even during his enthronement, which I forgot to mention included a reading in Greek to honor the Patriarch who came to attend. A very different move than we would have seen with Benedict.

  3. The Brazilian press (I’m Brazilian) mentioned both saints as having inspired the new Pope to assume the name Francis. His actions will tell us. I’m not an expert.

  4. A few questions for my edification. Do you have any source material on the mozzetta in imperial Rome? I’m not having much luck. Also, what, in particular, do you see as desirable opening of the liturgy as a result of Vatican II that has since been reversed? This line of critique is appealing in its structure, but my experience on the ground has been one of a complete train wreck in regard to attempts at more “open” liturgies, and as good materialists, I think this needs to be accounted for. In other words, it is tempting to see the relaxing of liturgical strictures as a positive thing, in principle, but the reality of what came in to fill that space, in many cases a weird simulacrum of evangelical worship which is even more oppressive in some ways, has to be addressed directly.

  5. Hill,
    No direct source material on the mozzetta and imperial Rome, but it’s generally mentioned when the mozzetta is spoken about. I think if you google “mozzetta imperial rome”, you’ll see that. I can’t remember if it is in the Catholic Encyclopedia or elsewhere it was mentioned that the way the custom passed down and even its role in imperial Rome was lost due to the lack of documents. Either way, for many the shirking of the mozzetta by Francis is a sign that he’s not interested in an “imperial Papacy”.

    As for the liturgies question. Yeah, I am familiar with that sort of train wreck of evangelical worship service. But I wasn’t really thinking about that, I was thinking about liturgy in the larger sense, the culture it forms. Directly after Vatican II many parishes felt free to experiment with culture in a way they didn’t before. So it was an openness to letting Catholic culture be mutated and changed (while also I am assuming mutating and changing) other culture. It was an invitation for a more open society, to use the Bergsonian lingo for it. That’s more of what I was thinking of, but the reaction against that strand of Vatican II came about pretty swiftly and what arose in its place was the anemic sort of aping of mainline and evangelical Christianity you mention.

  6. You’ll find if you google that phrase that there’s no information about it, nor do they appear together frequently. Most of the things I can find indicate that the “mozzetta” goes back to the middle ages. There may be another name for it that is giving me problems. It smells kind of like an old wives tale to me, though. The general point is obviously true, that most priestly vestments in high church Christianity derive in some way from Roman regalia, but there aren’t any obvious sources linking the mozzetta to the Roman Emperor. Occam’s razor suggests we interpret his refusal of the mozzetta as a simple aversion to ostentation rather than the more elaborate suggestion regarding an imperial papacy.

  7. I’m happy to be wrong here, but I was shocked by the fact that I could find literally nothing via google on this connection. Like I said, I definitely get the imaginative connection, and it has sufficient force without relying on a potentially dubious history of a specialized papal cape. The claim that, historically, papal regalia has an imperial character and history is, I think, obvious. Francis at least seems to be acknowledging that cognitive dissonance.

  8. If you think the contemporary Catholic Mass in North America is oppressive, you might need to get out more. A four hymn sandwich of One Eagle’s Wings, Christians Let us Love One Another, Take and Eat, and Sing to the Mountains has been rather standard. Maybe there’s a Pange Lingua once a year– the horror! But I suppose even a single “to Blessed Mary, Ever Virgin” per Mass is enough to ruin all the participants sex lives.

  9. Setting aside the gorgeous wrap, I could have just talked about his refusal of the throne and refusal of pledges of allegiance though to the point across and fall on the right side of Ockham’s cut.

  10. OK, so to review. If the point of the post is that Pope Francis is signaling a turn away from the imperial Papacy of Benedict… then surely these decisions to reject at least three things we know were lifted from the political symbolism of the Roman emperors (shoes, throne, pledges) then the refusal of the mozzetta is just icing on the cake. No?

  11. I don’t think you need to search for any explicit connection between papal and roman red shoes. A quick search of roman imperial clothing will lead to several sources discussing how red shoes were worn by roman senators and caesars depending on the time period you’re reading about. At the very least, roman red shoes were worn by the elite class. At most, they were worn by caesar–the imperial “son of god” who brings “peace and security.” Either way, red shoes are not a sign of humility.

  12. No qualms there. I’m really just inquiring about specific aspects of the mozzetta, primarily because as I was looking in to this stuff in the wake of your post, google came up totally empty-handed.

  13. If you found it in Boff, I would trust it – there is a lot of historical information that can’t be found on the Internet – books are still worthwhile :-)

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