Beyond Hemlines: What a Pope Can Teach us about Modesty

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By Deborah Farmer Kris

(An earlier version of this column was posted as “Un-Sexy Modest: Or, What a Pope Can Teach Us about Modesty” at the-exponent.com on 28 August 2013.)

During his seven months in the Chair of Peter, Pope Francis’s actions and words have moved me in unexpected ways.

As a Mormon woman, I have become weary of the way we employ the term “modesty.” Modesty is supposed to be one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), but in our discussions, we almost inevitably reduce it to rules governing the attire of (primarily) teenage girls. I’m not sure I’ve ever left a discussion about tank-tops and shorts feeling edified.

However, Pope Francis has given me hope for a more constructive modesty discourse because during his short tenure he has somehow managed to make modesty cool again, divorcing it from hemlines and necklines.

He seems to take seriously the Catholic Catechism’s teaching on modesty.

Modesty protects the intimate center of the person . . . It guides how one looks at others 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.

Pope Francis’ news-making decision 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 has exhorted his clergy and women religious to likewise pursue modesty in possessions:

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.

Then there is the second, deeper dimension of modesty—an attitude of respect for each person’s dignity—whose headlines are never quite as flashy, but key to the Pope’s ministry. Within a week of his ordination, he participated in the Holy Week tradition of foot-washing.  But instead of washing the feet of 12 specially-selected priests, he went to a juvenile detention center and ministered to locked-up youth, male and female.

In August, the Pope unexpectedly called an Italian teenager who had written him a letter. During the conversation, the young man began to use a formal form of address, and Francis gently chided him

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’.

A modesty that guides “how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons” has long been a hallmark of his spiritual charisma. While an archbishop, Francis made the villas miserias of Buenos Aires his personal ministry, 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.” He handpicked clergy and women religious to live and minister there.  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

— A community newspaper

— Drug prevention programs

— A center for kids living in the streets

“I’d say that over the 15 years [Francis has] 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,” said Father Juan Isasmendia, a parish priest in the area.

“He came for all the big festivals and he did all the confirmations. One time, we had almost 400 people to be confirmed, and he did them all personally on one day.”

“The biggest problem we face is marginalization of the people,” said Francis. “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.”

Though “respect for the human person” clearly has implications for not viewing another as simply an object for one’s sexual gratification, for Francis, 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?

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