No pun intended, but I find the 'empty chair' image quite disconcerting. Far be it for me, a lowly, if not particularly humble layman, to criticise the Holy Father. I have to reserve my disquiet, since we are talking about the Successor of St Peter, under whom we gather as children of the Lord in unity.
Would St Francis of Assisi have attended a concert in his honour? No, but then St Francis was never a Pope, nor a Bishop, nor a Priest, and again we see here the striking discordance between the role of anyone who wishes to imitate the poverello and stand in the shoes of St Peter, Prince of the Apostles simultaneously.
The Lord Jesus knows what I've been thinking about the Holy Father's recent public action (or omission) and I'm certain that my thoughts have been uncharitable enough to warrant a Confession if only because we may not have the real/full story. Harbouring resentment and grievances is always wrong, and to do so against your spiritual Father, the Chief Shepherd on Earth, is not good. It is sinful, it damages our Faith and fosters discord and disunity. The good news is that 'out there', outside of the uptight Catholic blogosphere and in the real (virtual) world, there is universal applause for the Holy Father as evidenced by this Yahoo report. This is good because the Pope has won headlines again and even atheists are shouting, 'way to go, Pope!' with others saying 'This Pope might bring me back to the Church.' If that is the case, Deo gratias!
The problem is - and I've said this before - that with every bold, surprising, external gesture of poverty, simplicity and humility, His Holiness makes it more difficult for a Pope to enjoy some music with his Bishops and Cardinals ever again and makes Cardinals who enjoy Beethoven look bad, while His Holiness looks good, even though this was arranged ages ago. Let us be clear, however. The Lord Jesus sees into the heart. He knows 'what is in a man'. External appearances mean nothing to Him. That which rises high in the sight of men can be loathsome to God.
Maybe it is a bit indulgent to go to a concert in the Year of Faith called by the music-loving Pope Benedict XVI. Maybe the Princes of the Church shouldn't be publicly entertained with beautiful music. Maybe they should be out washing the feet of the poor instead. Maybe that's true, so maybe next year why not cancel this kind of thing and do something else more 'Gospel' orientated rather than the whole thing becoming a PR sensation and leaving some wondering if it is possibly a carefully manicured publicity stunt.
What I do not like about the 'empty chair' signal is that it could be interpreted that here we have a Pope who is willing to make others look bad in order to look good and to accept worldly honour while throwing his Cardinals under a public relations bus. It will displease many to hear it, but I consider it more sinful to seek headlines, fame and honour from the World than to enjoy a relaxing bit of Beethoven with your Brothers and, in this case indeed, spiritual Sons. Are we really saying that a Pope cannot be seen in public doing anything that isn't radical, public, touching or sends a potent Gospel message? Must the Pope always be seen 'doing' something radical? Is the Papacy to be transformed into a 'show'? Let's be frank. The Pope is still enjoying good headlines, but it was not 'great PR' and the admiration of the World that got St Peter crucified upside down.
Not every Pope will be like Francis, so how can any Pope come after Francis? What does the evidence of Francis's humility mean for perception of all of his predecessors? How can anyone be a 'normal run of the mill Pope' again? Humility is hard for all of us. It goes against our natural inclinations towards the elevating of the self. We are told to reject the Devil and all his pomp and all his works and all of his 'empty show'. As Pope, Benedict XVI had the humility to see that not everything depended on him. His critics often found it hard to see his own simplicity and quiet humility as he pointed to Jesus. The challenge to the critics of Pope Francis is not to recognise his great humility - because that is evident to everybody. No. Pope Francis's critics need to recognise Peter, under whose pastoral care we share communion and visible unity. Whatever our thoughts of the first months of Pope Francis's pontificate, he is the Successor of St Peter and where Peter is, there is the Church and where the Church is, there is eternal life.