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On the Papal Visit: “Flattery is not fidelity, nor is enthusiasm the substance of faith.” by Fr. George Rutler


October 4, 2015
by Fr. George W. Rutler
Some papal customs are rooted in the Roman imperium, which sought to destroy Christianity violently, only to be defeated by Christians pacifically. As the Caesars wore red slippers symbolic of the blood of their vanquished foes, so popes have been shod in the same red in token of the martyrs who shed their own blood for Christ. At papal coronations, flax would be burned before the Pontiff by a Master of Ceremonies saying “Sancte Pater, sic transit gloria mundi” . . . “Holy Father, thus passes the glory of the world,” just as a slave riding with a triumphant Roman general in his chariot through the Forum would whisper to the triumphator: “Respice post te, hominem te memento” . . . “Look behind, and remember that you are only a man.”

From the singular experience which only 266 men in history have shared, popes have known how ephemeral celebrity can be. In 1846, Pope Pius IX was hailed as the paladin of the new progressive age. Garibaldi wrote from Uruguay to offer military assistance, and Roman youths unhitched the pope’s horses so that they themselves might pull his carriage through the cheering crowds. By the end of his reign, his funeral had to be held under cover of night and a mob tried to toss his coffin into the Tiber.

When streets happily were lined with people cheering the Holy Father last week, his paternal emotions may have been mixed with the thought that not all of those taking his picture would be in church on Sunday. Flattery is not fidelity, nor is enthusiasm the substance of faith. In 1914, when the papal tailor told Pope Benedict XV that he knew he would be elected, the somewhat ill-shapen Pope asked: “If you knew, why didn’t you make me a cassock that fits?” Popes know that celebrity is diaphanous and cheers last as long as the breeze. A Gallup poll claims that the public approval of Pope Francis dropped from 72% to 59% in the past year. Saint Paul had benign contempt for that way of measuring an apostle: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

When Saint Peter walked through Rome, he was not a celebrity like those Plutarch wrote about in his Parallel Lives, which was the equivalent of a glossy Hollywood magazine. But few today remember Camillus or Coriolanus or Sertorius. For that matter, rare is today’s teenager who could identify Bing Crosby. One caution about a pope addressing a Parliament, a Congress, a Bundestag, or the United Nations, is that it might give the impression that he is merely a statesman, and when pop stars surround him, the predilection might be to confuse him with them. This is why it is important to remember the blood of the martyrs and the burning flax.

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