Good Egg

Is Pope Francis Rewriting Easter?

From washing women’s feet to eschewing the gilded throne, he’s shaking up traditions and Vatican protocol.

Easter in Rome is always a Catholic feel-good moment, but the church’s most important religious holiday has been given as big a boost with Pope Francis. And before he gets down to the tough work of Vatican reform, he will enjoy at least a few more days in the warm glow.

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI planned the timing of his resignation, he no doubt knew the importance of having a new pope in place by Easter. No matter who is at the helm of the Holy See, the two weeks around Easter always bring hundreds of thousands of extra visitors to Rome. But the Pope Francis frenzy is drawing thousands more than usual this year. Past popes all have celebrated the main events of Holy Week in a fairly traditional manner, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday mass in Saint Peter’s Square. But Francis has decided to shake things up slightly.

On Maundy Thursday, a Catholic celebration in which the sitting pontiff traditionally washes and kisses the feet of 12 ordinary men at a ceremony meant to represent Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, Francis took a notably different route. Instead of performing the ceremony in Rome’s majestic gilded San Giovanni cathedral, he went to the Casal del Marmo juvenile-delinquent center in Rome’s shabby suburbs, where he washed the feet of 12 inmates, including Muslims and women. Church traditionalists cried foul, condemning the new pope for washing and kissing women’s feet. Edward Peters, a noted Catholic blogger on canon law, questioned Francis’s blatant disregard for the rules. “If liturgical law permitted the washing of women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, no one would have noticed the pope’s doing it,” Peters blogged after the ceremony. “What is not good is to leave a crystal clear law on the books but show no intention of expecting anyone to follow it. That damages the effectiveness of law across the board.”

On Friday Francis led the traditional Way of the Cross service in front of the ancient Roman Colosseum before a candle-holding crowd of thousands who came to get a glimpse of the popular pope. Many had never been to the Good Friday service before, but were drawn by the new pope’s charm. “I have lived in Rome my whole life and never felt compelled to come here on Good Friday,” said 63-year-old Assunta Betrami. “There is something so believable about him that I wanted to see myself.”

Easter Sunday will mark the culmination of Holy Week in Rome, but it may also signal the end of this pope’s honeymoon phase. After Easter, he will have to start the real work of reform and choose who will run the Holy See government by filling the seats of the Roman Curia. Who he puts in the role of secretary of State, which is effectively the Vatican’s prime minister, will define how he intends to run the show.

In a recent blog post, Vatican expert John Allen outlined the top contenders, led by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who has been the Vatican’s public face in some of the world’s most troubled regions. According to Allen, Filoni, 66, was “the lone Western diplomat to remain on the ground in Baghdad in 2003 when he was serving as the papal ambassador and the bombs began to fall.” He then refused an armed security detail in order to be seen “as an Iraqi by the Iraqis.” Allen points out that Filoni is also at loggerheads with the Vatican’s current secretary of State, Tarcisio Bertone, who has taken the brunt of the blame for the Vatican’s recent spate of scandals. Appointing someone who has no fear would send a clear signal that Francis intends to attempt to right the wrongs of the church.

Post-Easter, Francis will also have to attend to the disturbing details of the string of allegations of financial corruption and rumors of priestly impropriety in Rome when he finally digs into the red-covered binders of Vatican secrets left to him by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The dossier outlines a thorough investigation into the collateral damage from the VatiLeaks scandal commissioned by Benedict last year.

Based on his actions so far, Francis will likely pave his own way in dealing with the crisis. Not only has he shunned the protective bulletproof glass of the Popemobile, preferring to be face-to-face with pilgrims on his public appearances, he has also traded the gilded throne where most popes sit when meeting with cardinals and prelates for a simple white chair. He has even lowered the papal platform at such meetings so he is at the same level as his contemporaries. Francis has so far refused to move into the lavish pontifical apartments overlooking Saint Peter’s Square and is instead staying in the modest suite at the Santa Marta House inside Vatican City, where he takes his meals cafeteria style with the residents there instead of being served in a private papal dining room.

This is clearly a pope who is not going about business as usual.