Red shoes, black shoes Print
Real Life Catholic
Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

Real Life Cathoic by Christopher Stefanick

Pope Francis’ choice of shoes is not just about his preference of accessories. It’s a statement about the direction he’ll be taking his papacy. There’s a powerful witness in that direction.

That said, lest we get the wrong message (and I think many are), this new direction should not be perceived as a condemnation of his predecessors, nor of the rich symbolism that has always surrounded the papacy.

True to his name

In the short time since he’s been named pope, Francis has been true to his name. In fact, I’m not sure a papacy has ever so quickly and overtly been marked by the name chosen by a pope. Poverty, simplicity, and humility are all words that are synonymous with St. Francis of Assisi, and in just a few short weeks, with Pope Francis.

In his second major address he lamented, perhaps as St. Francis would have if he’d been named pope, “Oh, how I wish for a Church that is poor and for the poor.”

His humility has sent waves not only through the Church but also through the media. It wasn’t just the hotel staff that was dumbfounded when he personally checked out of his room the day after his election, or the newspaper kiosk owner in Argentina that was floored when he called five days later to cancel his delivery. The whole world was amazed!

I don’t think these kinds of stories (which, no doubt, we’ll be hearing more of) are feigned acts of humility or the pope trying on his newfound fame with the general public. This radical simplicity is consistent with the way he’s lived his entire episcopal ministry and the attention he’s always paid to everyday people.

Associated with the poor

If Pope Francis called to cancel his paper five days after his election, it’s because he had taken the time to befriend the man who delivered it when he was a cardinal. This is a man who has always preferred the company not just of ordinary people, but of the poor — and more, he is a man who has always associated himself with them.

He is affectionately called “the slum pope” by the overjoyed community that he served in Villa 21-24 of Buenos Aires, an area so dangerous that outsiders dare not enter. He would show up at the chapel there on a regular basis as cardinal to sip tea and minister to the people in a myriad of ways. His desk was covered with pictures of recovering addicts and volunteers from the slums.

I think this preference for the poor jolted the whole Church into an examination of conscience during Lent. The final judgment Jesus described in Matthew 25 is based entirely on our devotion to the poor. This devotion was an essential part of our witness for millennia, but I don’t think it’s the first thing people think of when they think of us Catholics anymore.

Witness of the pope

It might not even be the second or third thing. Of course there are many Catholic groups doing amazing things for those in need, but that service is not a part of the average Catholic’s commitments, and finding volunteers for those groups (especially among younger Catholics) can be very difficult. I think all that’s about to change thanks to the witness of Pope Francis.

But each pope offers a Christian witness in a unique way, which brings us back to the shoes. True to his “Franciscan” spirit, Pope Francis decided not to take on the famous red shoes of previous popes, instead opting for his own beat up, black shoes.

Some have seen Pope Francis’ “low church” style as a snub to his predecessors. They’ve interpreted it as a confirmation of the world’s misperception that things like red shoes and capes are all about lavishness, and that now we finally have a leader willing to purge the papacy of it all.

But I doubt very much that Francis’ intent was to correct Pope Benedict XVI, or Blessed Pope John Paul II, whom Francis will most likely canonize during his tenure.

Not signs of luxury

The red shoes and cape worn by his predecessors were not signs of luxury. The tradition of popes wearing red shoes and capes, like the tradition of U.S. Marines whose dress trousers feature a red stripe, is a symbol of blood — a reminder of those who have sacrificed their lives for the cause. The pope’s red shoes were a reminder of the blood of martyrs on which the papacy stands.

Sadly, though, the modern world often misses the point of religious signs and symbols — only seeing the “excess” of a man who seems to like silly, red leather shoes. Esquire magazine, referring to Benedict’s red leather shoes, named him “accessorizer of the year” in 2007. Given that reality, the black shoes might be a good step for the Church in 2013. Pope Francis certainly takes the wind out of the sails of any detractor who claims the Church is about nothing but money and power.

No doubt, Francis’ papacy will be marked (and we should pray it is) by strong yet highly accessible preaching, and by a spirit of humble service, especially to the poor. Benedict XVI will be primarily remembered as a great theologian and liturgist. Though in this, it’s important to remember that he also served the “average” person, and the poor, because lofty truth and liturgical beauty are not just for the highly educated and the wealthy.

So, what color shoes would Jesus wear if he were here today? I think sometimes he’d wear the red to honor those who shed their blood for him, and other times the weathered black to convey that the Catholic Church should be known as a Church for the poor — just as his vicars have done.


Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of youth outreach for YDisciple. Visit him at RealLifeCatholic.com