One of the things that many people have found endearing about Pope Francis is his simplicity – the way he lives, the way he speaks, the way he celebrates Mass, etc.
Whenever this discourse comes up I feel the need to defend the previous Popes, who were also notable in their simplicity of life – because they were holy. Pope Francis has certainly appeared more outwardly simple, and I think this reflects his personal holiness also. His outward simplicity has appealed to what seems to be a real thirst among the people, but since it differs in some respects from that of his predecessors, maybe we need to ask more specifically what simplicity is.
Before working towards an answer in that regard, it is interesting to note that this thirst for simplicity does not only exist in the Church, but in popular culture as well. Whole magazines are devoted to “the simple life” (which apparently involves the heavy use of light colors and sans-serif fonts), not to mention shows, lifestyle movements, web sites, and so forth. It seems that our lives have gotten “too complex” all around, Christian or not.
So what is simplicity? What is its source – where can we find it?
God is the source of all true simplicity, as God is, according to the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas (among others), infinitely simple. In God there is no division of parts, no movement of passions, no past or future according to our conception of time, etc. God simply “is”; or as He Himself said it, when Moses asked for His name, “I AM”. God is pure being, total simplicity. It’s pretty mind-boggling, actually.
For us to become simpler means to become more God-like; it requires growth in holiness. We can never be without divisions and parts, without past and future, but we can find greater integration for our life, greater coherence. Simplicity in human beings means having greater integrity. And it does manifest itself in different ways – hence we can say that this or that Pope or other person in the past was holy, without having the same outward appearances of our current Holy Father, Pope Francis. For some people it will ultimately mean living in a more austere way, making do with a lot less. (Surely we could all apply some measure of this.) But that won’t be the case for everyone.
What should be the case for everyone is that they grow in integrity, which comes about when we depend more and more upon God in every aspect of our life. Letting His light shine on every part of our life. That’s what unifies and “simplifies” everything. When we live from Him and for Him, everything becomes more coherent.
We can repaint our houses in cool colors, eat food we grew ourselves, live more “sustainably”, and so forth, all we want. But in the end, we won’t be truly simple – that simplicity that we recognize and admire in holy people – until we take the same path they did and take seriously the call to holiness. Don’t fall for the cheap imitations of simplicity that our popular culture offers: seek the real thing!