Un-SexyModest: Or, What A Pope Can Teach Us About Modesty
Pope Francis’ obvious decency appeals to me as a human. His discourse and homilies appeal to me as a Christian.
But his humble actions appeal to me as a Mormon woman who is weary of witnessing, over and over, how we culturally misuse the term “modesty” and reduce it to base rules governing the attire of (primarily) teenage girls.
Pope Francis gives me hope for the future of our modesty discourse because in five months, he has somehow managed to make humility and modesty cool again.
First, let’s look at modesty as discussed in the Catholic Catechism:
Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It guides how one looks at others (author note: not how others look at you) and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity. Modesty inspires a way of life which makes it possible to resist the allurements of fashion and the pressures of prevailing ideologies. Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.
The “allurement of fashion” extends beyond necklines. And while “respect for the human person” clearly has implications for not viewing another as simply an object for one’s sexual gratification, it moves beyond that into “looking not on outward appearance, but looking on the heart.” Or, as Jesus asked a group of men who wondered why he was allowing a sinful woman to anoint him: “Do you see this woman?” Really see her?
Pope Francis’ news-making decisions to shun certain “allurements of fashion” is what first endeared him to his new flock. He carries his own bags, swapped the apostolic palace for a room at the Inn of Saint Martha, celebrates mass each morning with rank-and-file Vatican employees, and is driven around in a Ford Focus.
He recently exhorted his clergy and women religious to likewise pursue modesty in possessions, including this pointed advice:
“It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car. You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
Or, beware the “allurement of fashion.”
The second dimension of modesty — an attitude of respect for the dignity of the human person — doesn’t make quite as flashy of headlines, but it is also key to the Pope’s ministry. Within a week of his ordination, he partook in the Holy Week tradition of foot-washing. Instead of washing the feet of 12 specially-selected priests, he went to a juvenile detention center and ministered to locked-up youth, including young women.
Do you see this woman? Jesus asked.
Last week, the pope unexpectedly called an Italian teenager who had written him a letter and gently corrected the young man when he began to use a formal form of address:
“He said to me, do you think the Apostles would have used the polite form with Christ? “Would they have called him your excellency? They were friends, just as you and I are now, and with friends I’m accustomed to using ‘tu’.”
But the most compelling story I have read about Pope Francis’s a modesty — his respect for the person – is this piece regarding his work in the Argentinian slums.
Buenos Aires has roughly 20 villas miserias, where the poorest of the poor reside, where as one grandmother put it, “For our kids, it’s either the parish or it’s paco [a devastating street-drug]… that’s it.”
Francis made this his personal ministry, handpicking clergy and women religious to live and minister to those the world has forgotten. The list of ministries is impressive, including:
- A recovery center for drug addicts
- Two farms where recovering addicts work and live
- A high school and trade school
- A home for the elderly;
- Soup kitchens
- A community radio station, which broadcasts 24/7 and which teaches young people the media business
- A community newspaper
- Drug prevention programs
- A center for kids living in the streets
But what struck me most about this article — the image I can’t get out of my head — is this:
“I’d say that over the 15 years he’s been walking down the streets here, at least half of the people have met him at some time and have a picture with him, meaning at least 25,000 people in this villa alone,” he said.
“He came for all the big festivals and he did all the confirmations,” he said. “One time, we had almost 400 people to be confirmed, and he did them all personally on one day. It took three and a half hours, maybe four, and he did it all.”
“When he would visit here, he’d take the bus and then he’d just come walking around the corner like a normal guy,” Isasmendi said.
“For us, it was the most natural thing in the world. He’d sit around and drink mate (an Argentinian tea), talking with people about whatever was going on. He’d start talking to the doorman or somebody about a book he was reading, and I could leave him there and go do something else, because Bergoglio was totally comfortable.”
I asked if Bergoglio had been so concerned with the slums because of the drugs, the gangs, or some other specific problem.
“The biggest problem we face is marginalization of the people,” he said. “Drugs are a symptom, violence is a symptom, but marginalization is the disease. Our people feel marginalized by a social system that’s forgotten about them and isn’t interested in them.”
Do you see this woman? Jesus asks.
I’m not sure I’ve ever left a discussion about tank-tops and hemlines feeling edified — though modesty is supposed to be one of the gifts of the spirit. But the world has caught its breath at the modesty of Francis. In his shunning the “allures of fashion” and “awakening in [us] respect for the human person,” we are reminded that modesty is primarily about recognizing the dignity of the human spirit and acting accordingly.