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The new pope: history professor discusses what it all means

April 11, 2013

Ellen Joyce talks about visual symbols of Pope Francis, future of church

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

Since Pope Francis became pope in March, Associate History Professor Ellen Joyce has been struck by the visual symbols he’s created more than by anything in particular he has said.

For example, Pope Francis refuses to wear all of the traditional papal clothes, opting instead for a basic white cassock without the frills, and he insists on riding in a plain car opposed to the papal limousine.

“This is a man who profoundly understands how these kinds of symbolic gestures will resonate with people, and he’s gotten everyone’s attention very quickly,” Joyce said.

Furthermore, a controversy ensued on Holy Thursday when Pope Francis held a small, simple celebration at a youth prison rather than offering mass in St. Peter’s Basilica as is the tradition of past popes.

Some were scandalized when Pope Francis washed the feet of two women at the prison instead of the feet of twelve priests in St. Peter’s Basilica. His reasoning for why he conducted this ritual−one centering on humility, service and commitment to the poor and marginalized−in this way is because the church should serve the prisoners, the poor and the victims of society.

Pope Francis has spoken multiple times so far about the dignity and importance of women, something Joyce finds refreshing. For example, in the context of Easter, he proclaimed women as the ones who first spread the word of Jesus coming back from the dead.

Joyce asserts that Pope Francis could potentially retire as Pope Benedict XVI did considering the former is 76 years old, and she thinks that could be a good opportunity for the Catholic Church to see where it is at in eight to 10 years and to give someone else the opportunity to change emphases and to set a new tone.

Going forward, Joyce predicts the media will watch for who Pope Francis appoints to key jobs in the Vatican and what happens when he travels to World Youth Day in Brazil this summer.

“I’m really excited and hopeful for the future of the church,” Joyce said. “Change is good. Change usually happens very slowly and, as someone who studies two thousand years of history, I know it happens very slowly, but it’s also very healthy and sometimes it can happen much more quickly than people expect.”

SOURCE: Ellen Joyce is an associate professor of history at Beloit College. She received her bachelor’s degree in humanities from Yale University and her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto. The courses Joyce has taught at Beloit over the years include Medieval European Civilization, European Reformations and Popular Religion and Society in the Middle Ages. Joyce can serve as a media resource on the topics of church history, medieval history and contemporary Catholicism.