John Allen recently laid out three good reasons why Pope Francis should take a break during the burning Roman weeks of ferragosto: for the sake of the wider Church, for the sake of his subordinates, and for his own health.
Although it seemed a little unlikely that it should be, of all people, Allen — the Stakhanovite of the vaticanisti — giving such advice to the pope, the reasoning was unarguable.
But I want to question the assumption that Francis cannot be taking a rest because he has not taken a vacation.
We tend to assume that a change is as good as a rest, that getting away to hotels in mountains or by the sea breaks with our routines and obligations and therefore revivifies us.
And that can be true. But there’s another part of the story: not just the stress of travel (the delayed flights, the clogged roads, the mediocre hotel that doesn’t look anything like it did online), but the way we reproduce the compulsive patterns of modern living when we travel: the constant entertainment, the compulsive consumerism, the packed days of sightseeing — this then this then this — and the grinning photos that daily we upload onto Facebook, or Instagram, that strain to shout: We Are Having So Much Fun!
Growing up, Jorge Bergoglio’s family didn’t have those two symbols of 1950s middle-class life: the car and the vacation.
As Jesuit provincial, he used to send off his students to Córdoba in the height of summer in January, or to the seaside with the poor children of San Miguel, while he remained rattling around in the cavernous Jesuit college, the Colegio Máximo.
As bishop from the early 1990s he spurned the car and continued not to take vacations. His priests recall him supplying for them when they went away, but he never did.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t taking time off.
As cardinal archbishop he would spend summer days in Buenos Aires — when the humid heat clings to you like a damp blanket, and the middle classes decamp to Mar del Plata or Pinamar — reading the classics and listening to music.
But he also spent more time in the shanty towns, callejeando — wandering the streets, going from house to house, sharing a gourd of mate, being a pastor.
Released from the stiff formalities of the cathedral and public life, he felt invigorated, and free.
Father ‘Pepe’ Di Paola, a shantytown priest who was and is close to Bergoglio, recalls him phoning him up on summer days and asking to walk around his neighborhood. That, for Bergoglio, was relaxation. It energized him.
It was about reducing to a minimum the obligations on a cardinal — the formal meetings, the executive decisions — and being again a simple pastor and missionary.
The Paraguayans and the Bolivians in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires couldn’t afford to go on vacation. And so, nor did he.
It meant learning again to listen: to receive, rather than to achieve, which is the true meaning of leisure.
This was all explained so well in the Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper’s 1947 classic, Leisure: the Basis for Culture. Among many fascinating vignettes, Pieper points out that the Ancient Greek for ‘work’ is ‘not-leisure.’
Our contemporary culture has it the wrong way round.
The medievals distinguished between ratio and intellectus: the first refers to the power of discursive thought, of searching, refining, and concluding, whereas the second refers to the art of “simply looking” — simplex intuitus — in which, says Pieper, “the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye.”
My bet is that Francis — who a few years ago in a book prologue deplored the divorce of ideas from reality in terms of ratio being detached from intelligentsia — has read Pieper.
But in Bergoglio’s case, cutting himself off silently to contemplate the lakeside glories of Castelgandolfo is not life but death, whereas being with the poor is to re-connect with his source of energy.
So when Francis has the Syrian refugees he rescued from Lesbos over for lunch, goes to visit nuns, or drops in on a Rome center for women rescued from prostitution, he is doing exactly what he used to do as archbishop when he went to spent time with the garbage-pickers, the cartoneros, or the seamstresses liberated by one of his favorite NGOs, La Alameda.
Francis has often joked that he is neurotically resistant to travel, an obsessive stay-at-homer. But it’s not fear of flying; he hates to be uprooted from the people and places that give him life. For him, a vacation means spending more time with them, not less.
He’s not doing it to give a message to the media; it’s who he is and what he does.
So while Francis’ staycation might look like he’s just carrying on as normal, he’s really not. His formal meeting schedule is suspended during August — although he’s made an exception for François Hollande, the French president, whom he meets today — which gives him more time to ponder the poems of Hölderlin, lose himself in the crescendos of Wagner, call up old friends, spend time with the poor of God and, of course, contemplate.
And if the Vatican reporters think they have to file a story on this then, well, maybe it’s they, not Francis, who have to take a leaf out of Pieper and learn the true meaning of culture.
On which relaxed note, and in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll confess that this week is my own staycation, and I promised my wife not to do a story for Crux.
But if you don’t tell her, I won’t.