During the last two and a half weeks, there have been many curious reports about the protocols and procedures surrounding today’s papal abdication. But none of these has been more curious, in my opinion, than the report a couple of days ago that, as Pope-Emeritus, Benedict XVI would no longer be wearing his distinctively rosy footwear.
Shortly after his 2005 election, there was quite a stir in the secular press over Pope Benedict XVI’s red shoes. Rumors swirled (later disproven but never totally squelched) that they were made by one of Italy’s most expensive houses of fashion and exorbitantly expensive. Commentators lamented the extravagance as a sign of the new Pope’s love of luxury; he’d be a man who would take full advantage of every perk and privilege of his high office.
And then Benedict XVI announced his resignation. One of the most powerful people in the world did what the world finds so unimaginable: he freely and humbly renounced his power in submission to a far higher one. And in so doing, he gave up his red shoes.
An article on those shoes the other day made a remarkable admission: it appears that we got this man all wrong. Those shoes weren’t about any wanton extravagance at all; they were, rather, one of many signs of how he would give himself completely to his ministry as the Successor of St. Peter.*
In the gospel reading at Mass today, we hear the story of “a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen” (Luke 16:19). But it’s not his luxurious wardrobe which determines his eternal destiny. The clothes do not, in fact, make or break the man. It’s that he puts his fine attire and other worldly possessions, his sumptuous food and other earthly pleasures, his marks of honor and the other privileges of his high station in life, above any care and concern for the poor beggar lying just outside his door. In the course of history, there have been plenty of impoverished sinners, and more than a few well-dressed saints. But you won’t find a single person in that saintly communion—rich or poor—who was not humble.
In just a few hours, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI will remove his famous red shoes one last time. Today, at the conclusion of his pontificate, let us before sure to pray for this man who has been such a faithful shepherd for the Church. And as we continue to make our way through these 40 days of Lent, let us also learn from his humble example: detaching ourselves from the things of this passing world, that we might instead be attached only to those things which lead to the joy that endures forever.
* How quickly we forget! Blessed Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) chose to wear brown shoes, but his pontificate lasted so long that most of us forgot that Popes before him for centuries—going back to late Roman times, in fact—have nearly always worn red shoes.