Pope Francis: Resurrecting Catholicism’s Image?

Piled in the storeroom of a leading shoemaker in Rome are several pairs of new, red leather shoes, in different styles and various sizes and half-sizes. Among them are the shoes intended for the new Fisher of Men of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. But the freshly minted pontiff immediately dispensed with the tradition of wearing red shoes, preferring to keep his sturdy, well-worn black cap toes. He also rejected the ermine-trimmed, elbow-length red cape worn by popes before him, buttoned down the front, and known as a mozzetta; and he kept his own iron pectoral cross in preference to the offered gold one. When the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, lately archbishop of Buenos Aires, appeared for the first time on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on a rainy March 13th evening, he wore the white papal cassock and, speaking good Italian, told the huge crowd that the cardinals in the conclave had chosen him “from almost the end of the world.”

The pope’s wardrobe choices were just the beginning of a succession of sometimes startling changes he has made to the time-honored patterns of papal behavior. He is said to have taken one look at the spacious, high-ceilinged papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, pronounced it “large enough to house three hundred people,” and decided to stay at the Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican boarding house for visiting prelates, where he lived during the conclave. From his modestly furnished second-floor suite—with his two secretaries, the Maltese Father Alfred Xuereb and Father Fabian Pedacchio from Argentina, each occupying a small room close by—he commutes the few hundred yards to work at the Vatican Palace; yet he still has most of his meals in the hotel dining room with the other guests.

In a remarkably short time, the first Jesuit pope has defined himself by his simple message of spiritual renewal through more concern for the poor and the disenfranchised. It starts with his choice of name: St. Francis of Assisi is a saint known for his humility and simplicity, and his care for the poor. Pope Francis delights the crowds that continue to show up wherever he goes by his direct, often unscripted homilies, usually delivered in conversational Italian. “If we step outside ourselves, we will find poverty,” he said recently. Catholics should do more to help “those on the fringes of society who need help the most.”

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George Weigel, Pope John Paul II’s biographer, who recently interviewed Cardinal Bergoglio, says the new pope “intends to go on the evangelical offensive; it will be all gospel, all evangelism all the time.” On his trip to Brazil in July, Francis called for a church “capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy,” he said, “we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.”

All of which should hardly be surprising, given the reputation Bergoglio gained while archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he lived in a modest apartment instead of the archiepiscopal palace, liked to cook his own meals, and often rode the bus to his office. In the city slums he visited often, he was known simply as Father Jorge. His archdiocese was well organized, and his outspoken criticism of what he saw as the Argentinian government’s mishandling of the country’s economic and social problems, causing hardship to ordinary citizens, showed he was no pushover. But transferred to the world stage the new pope’s personal style is magnified by the media, even as it causes occasional consternation among members of the Vatican Curia.

When, a few days following his election, he wanted to celebrate Holy Thursday mass at the Casa del Marmo youth detention facility, a liturgy that included washing the feet of twelve young men and women to commemorate the actions of Christ’s Last Supper, he was told that the pope always celebrated this liturgy in the basilica of St. John Lateran, or in St. Peter’s. But in Argentina, Francis had regularly spent Holy Thursday at drug rehab centers and other locations on the margins of respectable society, and that wasn’t going to change.

“Every new pope takes some getting used to, but this one more than most,” confided a Vatican prelate with a resigned sigh recently. This was after Francis was a no-show at a Vatican concert in his honor, having sent word at the last minute that he had pressing business to attend to. The concert—a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony originally scheduled for his predecessor—went ahead with the papal armchair standing empty in the middle of the hall.


The disconcerting resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, almost without precedent in church history, confused and upset many Catholics. The German-born pope had left mountains of unfinished business ranging from the pedophile priest scandals to corruption in the Vatican bank, and a general feeling of malaise throughout the administration of the church.

Benedict was the quintessential insider, a long-time senior Curia prelate, a brilliant theologian, less so as an administrator, and Eurocentric in outlook. To clean up the mess, the cardinals elected Francis, a total outsider with no Curia experience (at least fifty-five of the one hundred and fifteen elector-cardinals have worked in the Vatican at one time or another), and coming from what many Vatican clerics would regard as the boondocks.

After two non-Italian pontiffs—the first in four hundred years—“The Americas have moved from the periphery to the very heart of the Catholic world,” wrote Massimo Franco, Vatican watcher and political commentator for the newspaper Corriere della Sera, in an article in Survival, the journal of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Eurocentrism is no more.” Well, for the moment. Francis faces the enormous challenge of cleaning up the current mess, and fundamentally reshaping the central administration of the church to reflect its global dimensions. In other words, he must give new meaning to the vision of a universal church as a reason for Catholics, and especially the poor in the world’s urban mega-slums, to continue to regard it as the true faith and find solace in its Christian message.

It’s no wonder that every morning in the conclave the cardinals sing the “Veni Creator,” the invocation to the Holy Spirit to guide them in their voting. But the late Father Andrew Greeley, the Catholic scholar and occasional novelist, once wrote that the papal election was also a political process, one in which an old-style Chicago precinct captain would feel right at home. The conclave is held behind closed doors, and the participants are sworn to secrecy. But it was clear from the result that in the conclave of 2013 the Europeans in effect lost control of the papacy for the first time in more than a thousand years.

Put very simply, a split in the Italian group of twenty-eight elector-cardinals (out of one hundred and fifteen) who could not agree on a candidate sent the US cardinals—traditional allies of the Europeans in getting popes elected—scurrying for cover to the Latin Americans, creating the beginnings of an “anti-European” movement. The initial favorite was Cardinal Odilo Scherer, archbishop of São Paulo, but his close connections with the Roman Curia undermined his chances. Cardinal Bergoglio had already received a scattering of votes in the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict. With no real challenger in sight, the idea of a real breakthrough—in other words, electing a non-European—gained momentum. Support for Bergoglio increased rapidly, and it became a landslide.

From all accounts, then, the main narrative of the conclave was the need to reform the Roman Curia—which consists of the secretariat of state, nine congregations or departments, three tribunals, twelve pontifical councils, and the Institute for the Works of Religion (commonly known as the Vatican Bank or IOR)—and which cardinal was best equipped for the challenge. The pope’s “own house has to be put in order,” said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the retired archbishop of Westminster who was not himself an elector, having passed the age limit of eighty for voting cardinals.

To the media, this principally meant a tougher and more open approach to pedophile priests, reforming the scandal-prone bank, and dealing with the picture of corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction painted in confidential documents stolen from the papal apartments by Pope Benedict’s butler. “Obviously, something’s not working if the personal papers of the pope can be purloined from his desk and be printed in the media, including papers we’ve sent,” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told the National Catholic Reporter.

But in their pre-conclave meetings, the cardinals also addressed what many perceived as the fundamental problem—the breakdown in the relationship between the bishops and their national conferences on the one hand, and the pontiff and the Roman Curia on the other. The Second Vatican Council had established the doctrine of episcopal collegiality as perhaps its most important decision. Bishops were to share full and supreme power over the universal church, with the pope as the first among equals.

It fell to Pope Paul VI, the pontiff at the time, to put this doctrine into practice. In 1965, the pope established the synod of bishops as an advisory body for the Roman pontiff. Through a series of Curia reforms, culminating in the 1967 apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, the pope internationalized the Curia that had been monopolized for centuries by careerist Italian prelates, putting bishops from different countries in curial posts.

Curia diehards resisted the changes and gradually whittled down the role of diocesan bishops in governing the church. National conferences complained of being marginalized, with Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI doing little to correct the growing problem of a Rome-centric exclusiveness.

Francis has made a start by naming a council of eight cardinals from five continents as his kitchen cabinet. Their immediate task is to examine how to revive, and improve upon, earlier curial reforms. But they are intended as a permanent body to “advise” the pope in “the governance of the universal church,” a mandate with no apparent precedent.

The real test, however, will be the pope’s choice for secretary of state to succeed the outgoing Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, widely blamed for the failings of the Curia and the Vatican Bank. “The main changes will happen in Rome,” predicted Massimo Franco. “Francis wants to eradicate the image of a pope ensconced in a Roman bubble and restrained by the Vatican bureaucracy.” Hence his choice of the Santa Marta hotel for visiting prelates as his residence in preference to the grandeur of the papal apartments—a decision that distances him from the traditional trappings of his exalted state and the elaborate, multi-layered staff that goes with it (although Swiss Guards in their Renaissance uniforms have now been posted inside and outside Santa Marta: that he could not escape).


If restoring collegiality shifts more authority to the world’s bishops, Francis has been more forthcoming on what he expects of them. In June, he received papal nuncios (ambassadors) from embassies of the Holy See around the world. In his address he set down guidelines for their task in identifying for Rome suitable candidates from the local clergy to be appointed bishops.“Make sure that the candidates are pastors close to the people,” he told them.

This is the first criterion: pastors close to the people. A great theologian, a great thinker, let him go to the university where he can do much good. What we need is pastors. They must be fathers and brothers who are humble, patient, and capable of pity. They should embrace poverty, living simple and austere lives. They must not behave like princes, and be watchful that they are not ambitious and seeking the appointment . . . Those who seek to become bishops—no, they won’t do. And they should be married to the church, without being constantly in search of another [church] . . . They must be shepherds in front of their flock to show the way, in the center of their flock to keep it together, and in the rear of their flock to prevent any from remaining behind . . .

The pope has acted more promptly in tackling the problems of the Vatican Bank. He appointed a cleric, Monsignor Battista Ricca, as his representative to the bank, tasked with reporting directly to him, although this appointment may backfire following allegations by a respected “Vaticanist,” Sandro Magister—but called “unreliable” by a Vatican spokesman—that Ricca had a gay relationship while on an overseas posting as a Holy See diplomat. He also set up a commission consisting mainly of senior prelates to scrutinize the bank’s activities.

With assets of around $7 billion spread over nineteen thousand depositor accounts, the bank is used to finance the church’s day-to-day operations but doesn’t lend money. It has had a reputation for opaque and secretive dealings for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was said to have laundered money for organized crime; the owner of one of the Italian banks with which IOR did business was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge in London, and its own head, the American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, only escaped indictment because an Italian court ruled that he had diplomatic immunity.

Prior to his abdication, Benedict had taken some initial steps to repair the bank’s tarnished international reputation. He had appointed prominent Italian economist Ettore Gotti Tedeschi to head the bank, which also sacrificed some of its secretiveness by submitting to the scrutiny of Moneyval, the European agency that screens financial institutions for money laundering and terrorist financing. Last July, Moneyval said “the Holy See has come a long way in a very short time,” but still needed to meet a further seven of its sixteen recommendations. By then, however, Gotti Tedeschi had resigned and was replaced in February by another Benedict appointment, Ernst von Freyberg, a German banker, who has promised to publish the bank’s annual report—a novel idea for IOR. The bank also hired a Swiss international lawyer specializing in making banking institutions respectable, and he reported to the Italian authorities several—presumably foiled—attempts at money laundering through the bank. The fact that Francis increased oversight of IOR suggests to observers that he either felt further scrutiny was necessary, or wanted more rapid improvement—or both.

Some respected Vatican commentators noted that Francis has so far avoided any substantive discussion of the hot-button social issues against which his two predecessors expended so much energy. “In his pronouncements, Pope Francis has so far deliberately avoided using such words as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage,” observes Sandro Magister, who covers the Vatican for L’espresso magazine. And this low-key approach, argues Magister, has further boosted the Argentinian pope’s popularity with lay people. For example, celebrating mass in St. Peter’s Square recently, he said, “The living God sets us free. Let us say ‘yes’ to love and not selfishness. Let us say ‘yes’ to life and not death. Let us say ‘yes’ to freedom and not enslavement by the many idols of our time.” No reference to “abortion” or “killing the unborn.” In June, the French episcopate organized large-scale rallies against gay marriage; yet the pope failed to offer any words of support when he met with a group of French parliamentarians.

Even so, the pope’s past opposition to same-sex marriages as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and his position on what the Vatican calls “non-negotiable values,” such as protecting life and the sanctity of marriage, suggest that any differences from John Paul II or Benedict are a question of style—that any real, major changes on doctrinal issues are unlikely. The pope’s now famous “Who am I to judge?” remark with reference to gay priests can hardly be regarded as a papal pronouncement on an issue that drew severe censure from his immediate predecessors, and raises more questions than it answers.

It’s a coincidence that the pope’s first foreign trip, where a mistake in the motorcade route led to a frenzied welcome, was to his native continent; his visit to Brazil in late July was originally planned for Benedict. But what more ideal setting than a Rio slum to enlarge on what has become the early essence of his pontificate—concern for the poor in an indifferent world bent on what he has called “the cult of money”? Francis has made the global economy the whipping boy of some of his speeches. “If investments and banks plunge, this is a tragedy,” he commented recently. “But if families are hurting—this is nothing.”


It remains to be seen how Francis intends to translate his words into action. The Catholic Church, after all, has several international aid organizations, such as Caritas. The pope’s emphasis on the poor suggests that he wants to broaden the scope of the Vatican’s charities. His apparent keenness to clean up the Vatican Bank could mean that he wants to increase its activity in helping the poor. But where does the line get drawn? The Vatican’s assets also include artistic treasures of inestimable value, and some sources are taking the new pope’s unpredictability and his indifference to the panoply of his office to the extreme worry that some art may be put on the block to raise funds for new aid programs.

Among the other imponderables is how the new pope will approach international issues such as the increasingly difficult situation of Christian minorities in the Arab world. The formerly one-million-strong Christian community in Iraq has been halved since the start of the war there in 2003, under pressure from the dominant Shiite majority. The Egyptian Copts—Christians in communion with Rome—face many uncertainties following the Arab Spring, as do the Christian minorities in the Maghreb. In the ongoing Syrian conflict, the once secure Christians are also being attacked in areas held by the insurgents. “The Vatican fears the religious agenda of the new Islamic elite,” wrote Massimo Franco of the Corriere della Sera. It remains to be seen how a pope will address these issues, so far from his own experience.

Meanwhile, two predictions connected with the pope’s election were quickly forgotten. First, some thought that Francis’s failure to oppose the Argentinian military regime more forcefully in the 1980s, and in particular allegations that he had not helped two fellow Jesuits jailed for practicing liberation theology, would cast a shadow on his papacy, but so far that hasn’t happened. Second, there was also the issue of a living predecessor, but it turns out that a retired pope and his successor can live within yards of each other without unduly complicating each other’s lives. The retired Benedict has so far lived up to his commitment to live “hidden from the world.” Francis has quickly demonstrated that there was no likelihood of his living in Benedict’s shadow.

In the excitement generated by the new pope, not much has been said about the possible long-term implications of Benedict’s resignation. He has in effect introduced another option into the papal scenario. One could argue that if one pope can become so overwhelmed by the pressures of his office that he considers resignation the only option, why not another? This is only one of many imponderables Pope Francis faces as he charts new ground.

Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

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