When Pope Francis embarked Monday morning for Brazil, where he will take an official week-long tour, he raised eyebrows around the world by carrying his own bag up the stairs to his flight out of Rome.
Francis, who was elevated to the papacy in March, has a reputation for combating poverty and for these shows of modesty. As a cardinal in Argentina, he famously gave up his driver to ride the bus. The Vatican has long drawn criticism for its leaders' gilded lifestyles, particularly as Catholicism's population shifts from Europe to developing countries where poverty is more common. The idea is that, by carrying his own bag, Francis is seeking to demonstrate humility and a closer connection to regular Catholics, as well as signaling to other Vatican officials that they could stand to behave a bit less like royalty and more like priests, who in Francis's Jesuit tradition often work closely with poor communities.
These small acts can be symbolically powerful -- and, to those familiar with the Vatican's long tradition of standing apart from regular people, surprising -- which helps explain why images like this one are everywhere today:
It's an admirable goal and an important one for the Catholic Church today, which is struggling to find its place in a changing world. But it's hard not to notice that, while it's unusual a pope to port his own bag, Francis is still carrying it onto a chartered A330 Airbus that's making the trip just for him and his entourage. The Alitalia plane, known colloquially as "Shepherd One," serves the pope in these official visits, a bit like the U.S. president's Air Force One.
Of course, Francis necessarily has a big entourage, and it probably wouldn't be practical for him to squeeze into a coach seat on a commercial plane. It's the juxtaposition in this image -- he's carrying his own bag, but stepping onto his own plane -- that shows just how hard it can be for Francis to reconcile his goals of modesty and humility with the elaborate necessities of his very old office.
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