Francis and the Cardinals: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

Two photos of the Pope and the group of eight cardinals he has chosen to advise him on Church reform grace an October 2nd article in The National Catholic Reporter.  (Link to article): http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/vatican-no-report-cardinals-group-popes-latest-interview-accurate

We tend to interpret photographs according to their content – the people present in the photo, the setting, the expressions on people’s faces, what they are wearing, and so on. History and experience have taught us that what we think we see in a photo may not be the whole truth of what was going on when the picture was taken. We have learned to look, as well, for what is missing from the photo, as we have learned to examine text and to determine missing voices, missing stories and missing aspects of history.

The first photo on the NCR page shows the pope and the cardinals posing in a formal way for a group photo. Their garb is formal, appropriate to the seriousness of the event. Their smiles look genuine. They seem fairly relaxed and this speaks of a congenial atmosphere. The setting is obviously one of the rooms at the Vatican – high ceilings and grand art work.

The second photo shows the pope and the cardinals in prayerful poses around a work table. Again, they are shown in a setting within the Vatican. It appears to be a room for working, for planning, for conversation. The room is elegant, and once again art work adorns the walls, and statuary adorns pedestals.

The art work is what drew my eye. Contained within the ornate frames of the paintings on the wall is evidence that women have a place within the tradition. In fact, the women depicted in the paintings are the only suggestion of the presence of women in the Catholic Church, aside from the fact that each of the men in the room must have had a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and so on.

The women in the paintings embody the romantic and highly idealized vision of the great masters of earlier times. It is hard to imagine that today’s women could or would exist happily within those frames. We have outgrown them.

I wonder if Francis and the cardinals will gaze upon these paintings and allow the images of the women represented in them to influence them in their deliberations on church reform. Will the influence be one that prompts more progressive directions in the hierarchy’s attitudes towards women? Or will those gazes be wistful and nostalgic and tend towards conservatism and traditional rigidity?

Just as the women in the paintings are held within frames, the role of women in the church has always been framed by social expectations, norms, culture, traditional notions of purity and property rights. Men’s roles have been framed too. But the men in this room are real, living people, while the only women present remain ensconced in ancient works of art. They can only speak symbolically.  It’s hard to imagine what they might be saying to the men in the room.

Perhaps, and I hope this is possible, the men who are meeting in that room will become aware of the disconnect between these ancient images of women and the reality of real women in the world today. Perhaps they will find themselves gazing at these women and be reminded that there are women without voices in the church who are represented by those paintings, even though women have played a variety of roles in bringing the Church to where it is today.

Maybe they will consider allowing women into the room who are not constrained by rigid, wooden frames – real, vital women who desire to make a meaningful contribution to conversations about Church reform.

A picture paints a thousand words, so the saying goes. These pictures speak volumes to me about the absence of women’s presence in the planning of the Church for the future. My hope and prayer is that part of Church reform will realize a vision of men and women sitting down together and discussing the vision, mission and image of the Church as we move forward.

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About Kathryn Perry

Kathryn Perry, MDiv, is an alumna of Regis College, Toronto. She is the author of The Courage To Dare: The Spirituality of Catherine Donnelly, Founder of the Sisters of Service (Novalis 2013).
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One Response to Francis and the Cardinals: A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

  1. Lois Perron says:

    Thanks again, Kathryn, for a very interesting observation about the women who were/were not present at this meeting.

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