The philosopher Thomas Reid drew us to the “natural language” that underlies all language and makes translation possible. Without the benefit of words, we can tell the difference between a look of friendly approval and a menacing look, portending danger. In the same way, we have a natural sense that informs our recognition of things in the arts, in paintings and architecture. Even peasants, untutored, can tell the difference between a hovel and a palace. We count on that natural sense of things as we seek to cultivate a certain awareness of things that are higher and lower as we recognize the difference between a cathedral and a hamburger stand.
The Church has made its rich life marked with those signs, whether in the dignity of the Mass, the burning of incense, and yes, the sacraments of bread and wine. Pope Francis has clearly understood the importance of those signs as he has made a visible gesture of taking a bus and standing in line, rather than calling forth the trappings of office. It appears that his point was readily – and widely – understood. What was equally clear was his own awareness that, with these simplest of gestures, he was teaching at every moment.