Sometimes an Empty Throne Is Just an Empty Throne

empty-chairLast weekend Pope Francis found himself in some hot water.

Or, I suppose, it depends on how you look at it. In short, the pope decided to skip a musical concert he was previously expected to attend. One would not have even noticed this, but Pope Francis was to be a guest of honor and arrangements were made to have a papal throne (in Francis’ case — a white papal armchair) at the event.

That throne remained empty and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Because this was a Vatican event, attended by many high-ranking cardinals and bishops, as well as the tuxedoed “Gentlemen of the Pope,” laymen who are like an honor guard that greets various Vatican dignitaries, it was widely interpreted as the pope intentionally avoiding much of the pomp and circumstance of these kinds of events.

However, that seems to be much overblown.

John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter said:

“Papal ambassadors, or nuncios, from around the world were in Rome last week for a conference, including a session with Francis on Friday. Since he does not come out of the world of Vatican diplomacy, Francis apparently felt his time Saturday evening would be better spent getting to know these guys, given that many of them were returning to their posts Sunday afternoon or today. That familiarity is especially important given that some of them may be in line for other Vatican positions that Francis shortly will have to fill, including the all-important role of Secretary of State.”

So, much as we’ve seen from the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis intends to spend time “with the guys.”

Allen further reported that the concert seemed to be more in line with Benedict XVI’s musical tastes (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed in Benedict’s native German), and perhaps that made the event all-too-easy for Pope Francis to blow off in favor of handling what he thought was more important work.
Furthermore, Allen reminded us that Pope Benedict had also withdrawn from attending a Vatican Christmas concert in 2005. When he did so, musicians and others got annoyed, saying that Benedict snubbed them because he didn’t like the “pop culture feel” of the music. When Francis does the same, he is applauded for simplicity.

At the end of the day it seems that this is much ado about nothing except the media looking to feed the 24-hour news cycle.

And yet …

There seems to be one small spiritual element in all of this. The practical pope looks at his choices and ends up making a decision based on who needs him more. It reminds me of Fr. Mark Thibodeaux, another Jesuit and noted author who spoke of always wanting to work with those who were living in deep poverty as opposed to the elite Jesuit high school where he had been assigned.

At one point, he took a sabbatical and went to one of the most remote areas in Africa and there he found a young man living in a mud hut who owned next to nothing. The surprising thing was that the young man was happy, much happier than many of the young boys who ended up in Fr. Mark’s office looking for spiritual advice. It dawned on Fr. Mark that in fact, he was needed far more at the rich high school than in the far reaches of the African jungle.
And so the question comes to us: Who needs us more? Where does God most call us to be and with whom might God need us to spend our time?

As Pope Francis begins his reform of the Curia, he realizes that a night spent with those who could become his closest collaborators just might benefit the people of God more than a night spent at a lavish Vatican affair. While not an intentional snub of anyone in particular, this pope seems to have gotten some priorities straight. Let’s pray that he might be led by God’s spirit to continue to make more choices that benefit the Church.