“I really need to start making changes right now.”
Pope Francis spoke these words in late May 2013, a mere two months after the Vatican conclave had vaulted the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina from obscurity into the papacy. Modal Trigger
His guests that morning at his humble papal residence of Santa Marta, inside the walls of Vatican City, were a half-dozen of his friends who were visiting from back home in Buenos Aires.
His confidential sentiments were remarkable, because to many observers — some delighted, others discomfited — Pope Francis had already changed seemingly everything, seemingly overnight.
He was the first Latin American pope. The first Jesuit pope. The first non-European–born pope in more than a thousand years. The first pope to take the moniker of St. Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor.
No one saw him coming; perhaps even those cardinals who voted for the 76-year-old did not know what they were getting.
Moments after his election on the evening of March 13, 2013, the new leader of the Catholic Church materialized from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City without the traditional red scarf known as the mozzetta, wearing a silver pectoral cross around his neck instead of the usual gold embroidery. He greeted the screaming masses below with electrifying plainness: “Buona sera, fratelli e sorelle (Good evening, brothers and sisters).”
When he departed the ceremonies, he walked past the limousine that awaited him and hopped into the bus ferrying the cardinals who had just made him their superior.
In his first meeting with the international press, he declared his primary ambition: “Oh, how I would like a poor church, and for the poor.”
He was a practical callejero, a street priest who wanted the Catholic Church to make a lasting difference in people’s lives — to be, as he often put it, a hospital on a battlefield, taking in all who were wounded, regardless of their affiliation. In the pursuit of this objective, he could be, according to Argentine rabbi and friend Abraham Skorka, “a very stubborn person.”
Though to the outside world Pope Francis seemed to have exploded out of the skies like a meteor shower, he was a well-known and occasionally controversial religious figure back home. The son of a working-class accountant whose family had emigrated from northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region, Bergoglio had distinguished himself from the moment he entered the seminary in 1957 at the age of 20 (after briefly but famously working as a lab technician and as a bouncer at a club).
In 1958 he chose the intellectually challenging and socially rigorous Society of Jesus as his path to the priesthood. He taught unruly boys, washed the feet of prisoners, and studied overseas. He became the rector of Colegio Maximo as well as a fixture in the blighted shantytowns throughout Buenos Aires.
Shy in disposition, Bergoglio preferred the company of the poor over the affluent. His indulgences were few: literature, soccer, tango music, and gnocchi.
Into the world
Pope Francis’ impact on the world thus far is as impossible to miss as it is impossible to measure.
“Two years ago,” says Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the Catholic Reporter, “if you asked anybody on the street, ‘What’s the Catholic Church for and against,’ you would’ve gotten: ‘It’s against gay marriage, against birth control’ — all this stuff. Now if you ask people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the pope — he’s the guy who loves the poor and doesn’t live in a palace.’ That’s an extraordinary achievement for such an old institution. I jokingly say that Harvard Business School could use him to teach rebranding. And politicians in Washington would kill for his approval rating.”
‘IF YOU ASK PEOPLE, THEY’LL SAY, ‘OH, THE POPE — HE’S THE GUY WHO LOVES THE POOR AND DOESN’T LIVE IN A PALACE’’
- Father Thomas J. Reese
His availability has been received with the kind of delirium one ordinarily associates with teen idols. Of course, as is evident when speaking to Vatican officials, the spectacle of a papal personality cult — Francis as rock star — is beneath the dignity of the church.
His sheer exposure to the masses is both wondrous and, to those who admire him — not to mention his security team — more than a little unnerving. As one of his old friends, Argentine Pentecostal pastor and scholar Dr. Norberto Saracco, said to him during a visit to Santa Marta, “Jorge, we know that you don’t wear a bulletproof vest. There are many crazy people out there.”
Francis replied calmly, “The lord has put me here. He’ll have to look out for me.”
His corporeal accessibility conveys something more meaningful than a photo op. It is the conscious recognition of a callejero who, like his namesake, Francis of Assisi, has long believed that the church must go out into the world, and not vice versa.
“Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, of confronting a wounded person in the road,” says Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli.
Change in the air
For those who wanted change, Pope Francis has not disappointed. He has appointed 39 new cardinals, 24 of whom come from outside Europe. With a searing speech in December 2014 in which he ticked off the “sicknesses” afflicting the Curia (among them, “vainglory,” “gossip,” and “worldly profit”), the pope has tasked nine cardinals — all but two of them outsiders to the Curia — with reforming the administrative institution.
It is hard to say what, if anything, these moves will lead to. The preliminary Synod on the Family that Francis convened in October 2014 produced no sweeping doctrinal changes, which mollified conservative Catholics who feared exactly that. But the actual synod in October 2015 could produce a dramatically different outcome.
According to one of the pope’s friends and former instructors, Juan Carlos Scannone of the Jesuit seminary of San Miguel, “On the subject of divorced and remarried couples [taking Communion], he told me, ‘I want to listen to everyone.’ He’s going to wait for the second synod, and he’ll listen to everyone, but he’s definitely open to a change.”
Another friend discussed with the pope the possibility of removing celibacy as a requirement for priests.
That friend says, “If he can survive the pressures of the church today and the results of the Synod on the Family next October, I think after that he will be ready to talk about celibacy.”
Life in the Holy See was altogether different under Benedict, a cerebral scholar who continued to write theological books during his eight years as pope. It was different, too, under his mentor John Paul II, a theatrically trained performer and accomplished linguist whose papacy lasted 27 years. Both men were reliable keepers of papal orthodoxy, extending to their kingly trappings — John Paul II with his Rolex, Benedict with his custom-made cologne.
The spectacle of this new pope, with his cheap plastic watch and bulky black orthopedic shoes, taking his breakfast in the Vatican cafeteria alongside nuns and janitors, has required some adjustment for those who have long taken comfort in centuries of papal predictability.
In certain ways, Francis is a throwback. He begins his mornings at about 4 a.m., with prayer. He has never owned a cellphone. (News of Pope Benedict’s resignation reached him a day late because of this.) For that matter, he has never used the Internet; instead, he replies to e-mails in his microscopic handwriting, which his private secretary then reproduces on a computer. (The tweets on his @Pontifex Twitter account, which has more than 5 million followers, are written by the Vatican press office.)
His informality is best exemplified by his sense of humor — which, though sly and often ironic, is never mean. After being visited in Santa Marta by his old friend and fellow Argentine, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, Francis insisted on accompanying his guest to the elevator.
“Why is this?” Celli asked with a smile. “So that you can be sure that I’m gone?”
Without missing a beat, the pope added, “And so that I can be sure you don’t take anything with you.”
Revolution of grace
One could say that the ultimate mission of Pope Francis is to ignite a revolution of grace, inside the Vatican and outside its walls, without altering a single precept.Modal Trigger
“He won’t change doctrine,” insists his Argentine friend, the Franciscan priest Ramiro de la Serna. “What he will do is return the church to its true doctrine — the one it has forgotten, the one that puts man back in the center. For too long, the church put sin in the center. By putting the suffering of man, and his relationship with God, back in the center, these harsh attitudes towards homosexuality, divorce, and other things will start to change.”
This revolution — whether or not it succeeds — is unlike any other, if only for the relentless joy with which it has been waged. When the new archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Mario Poli, commented to Francis during a visit to Vatican City about how remarkable it was to see his once-dour old friend now wearing an omnipresent smile, the resident at Santa Marta considered those words carefully, as he always does.
Then Francis said with, of course, a smile: “It’s very entertaining, being the pope.”