Pope Francis' simple sartorial style a good sign

Pope Francis wore a white cassock during Tuesday's installation Mass.
Pope Francis wore a white cassock during Tuesday's installation Mass.
Posted: March 21, 2013

When people in power want to project modesty and austerity and show us their down-to-earth sides, they start by making style changes.

Whether men roll up their shirtsleeves, or women swap a blazer for a cardigan, politicians will tell you those subtle differences can win over a new audience.

The Vatican got that memo.

We'll never know for sure why the 115 cardinals in last week's papal conclave settled on Argentinian Jesuit Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio to assume the title of pope. But I'm sure it didn't escape the minds of the clerical hierarchy that choosing this particular cardinal would kick-start a makeover of the Catholic Church.

After all, Jesuits are called God's Marines. This order of the priesthood is mandated to live simply, traveling the world doing good works. They eschew the grandness and hoopla of ceremony, and Pope Francis didn't waste time projecting a simpler look.

We heard within the first 24 hours of his assuming the papacy that Francis has no intention of wearing the red papal shoes. (The shoes were rumored to be Prada, but instead they are the work of Ditta Annibale Gammarelli, the family business that has made papalwear for centuries.)

He's going for black tie-ups instead.

Francis has rejected wearing the gold pectoral cross in favor of keeping his silver crucifix - the one he's worn during much of the time he served as cardinal of Buenos Aires. He's ditched the red cape and stole accessories, wearing a white cassock during Tuesday's installation Mass.

The Vatican even announced that Francis will wear a gold-plated silver ring instead of the usual solid-gold one. His choice - which depicts God giving the keys of heaven to Saint Peter - once belonged to an aide of Pope Paul VI's personal secretary.

Papal experts say wearing a previously worn (dare I say vintage?) ring is a humble move.

For a church flanked by golden chalices and shrouded in secrecy - especially when it comes to facing its own sins - Pope Francis' move toward an unassuming sartorial style is refreshing.

For those quick to judge, these optics can speak louder than an "Our Father."

However, his modern fashion choices aren't any indication that Francis is going to be the face of progressive change.

He's 76, which means he came of age in the strict pre-Vatican II era - and he's remained socially conservative. Despite his speech calling on Christians to be more inclusive and accepting like Jesus, he will more than likely adhere to the church's stances against gay marriage, gay adoption, and abortion.

Yet he's also the closest thing the Vatican has seen to an everyday parish priest in a while. Certainly, lacking all that pomp and circumstance - the man would rather walk than take the papal Mercedes - he looks like the priests I grew up with.

Not only was I raised Catholic, my mother worked as a secretary for about 15 years in the '80s and '90s at Saints Joachim and Ann Parish in Queens Village, N.Y. I spent many an afternoon playing cards and trying to get through seventh grade algebra with my favorite priest, Father John W. Byrnes.

He was transparent. He had no fancy rings, he carried simple glass rosaries, and instead of using a wallet, he'd wrap his money in paper towels.

He wore black clerical garb when hearing confession in the office or visiting schools, and if it was cold, sometimes Father Byrnes wore a plaid shirt underneath his vestments during Mass. He and other priests I knew wore jeans or linen pants under vestments. And like everyone else, they put their pants on one leg at a time.

Perhaps some of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics will be like me and see echoes of their favorite parish priest in Pope Francis because of his simple personal style.

And maybe that will give them more faith in the church.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.

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