Pope Francis' 'Empty Chair' a Sign of Leadership, Not Rebellion

A funny thing happened on the way to a Vatican concert last Saturday night: Pope Francis never showed up.

The popular pontiff had Italian media aflutter when he decided to forgo a classical concert, an event that was part of the Church’s Year of Faith celebration. The concert, originally scheduled when Benedict XVI was still pontiff, was intended to illustrate how art and music can be instruments of evangelization.

According to John Allen, Jr. at National Catholic Reporter, photos of Francis’ empty white chair “were swiftly splashed across Italy’s major news outlets, with pundits such as famed church historian Alberto Melloni styling it a metaphor for a rejection of imperial pomp. Some even termed it a deliberate ‘snub’ of the Roman Curia.”

Allen cites Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera as having a piece that asserted that Pope Francis had “abolished the ‘Gentlemen of the Pope,’ a body of Italian laymen traditionally given the honor of dressing up in elaborate tuxedoes and welcoming visiting dignitaries to Vatican events.”

Apparently fond of the image of Francis as a rebel of sorts, the Italian media portrayed a pontiff who is abandoning the traditional pomp and splendor of the Vatican.

The real reason for the pope’s “empty chair,” however, was likely leadership, and not rebelliousness. Leadership and seriousness about what he needs to do for the Church.

It turns out that papal ambassadors, called nuncios, from around the world were in Rome last week for a conference, including a special meeting with Pope Francis on Friday. The pontiff, who is still learning to become familiar with Vatican diplomats, apparently felt his time on Saturday evening would be better spent getting to know the ambassadors before their departure. It is likely that some of them will be considered for other Vatican positions that the pope will need to fill, including the role of Secretary of State. Getting to know Vatican diplomats is a responsibility of the pope’s office.

Allen writes that Corriere della Sera, nevertheless, reported that Francis had referred to the custom of the “Gentlemen of the Pope” as “anachronistic” and even “dangerous,” associating it with notorious scandals in the lives of Italians in politics and business.

In conversation with Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi, however, Allen learned that the source of those reports was questionable.

“What was written in Corriere certainly goes well beyond any decisions that have actually been taken, formalized and communicated,” Lombardi said. “The article is evidently based on personal conversations that someone claims to have had with the pope. We’ll have to see whether the question of the gentlemen is looked at as part of a broader ‘reform’ of the Curia.”

For now, though, it seems Pope Francis knew he had a job to do, and a short window in which to do it. Making the decision to miss a concert, though a worthy event, in order to familiarize himself with individuals who could one day be in important Vatican roles is a sign of leadership and responsibility, even though the media may want to turn it into something that sells more newspapers.


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