Pope Francis, rebel in the Vatican

It was just another weekend at the office for Pope Francis, more of the series of actions, words and gestures that have kept him a fixture in the international media since his March 13 election. On June 15 he took a major step toward reforming the scandal-wracked Vatican bank by appointing his own man, Msg. Battista Ricca—who also runs the Vatican hotel where Francis lives—as interim prelate overseeing the bank’s management. The next day, as several thousand bikers gathered along Rome’s Via della Conciliazione, the main road leading to St. Peter’s Square, as part of Harley-Davidson’s 110th birthday celebrations, Francis arrived in his open-topped jeep and gave them his blessing. He then presided over an open air mass in the square, crowded with ordinary Catholics, nuns and priests in habit, and bikers in Harley jackets.

Francis’s seamless blend of style and substance, sometimes in the same act—his unprecedented decision to stay in sweltering Rome through July both expresses his solidarity with Romans without the means to own a summer home, and permits him to keep up his work schedule—is the new papal normal. The Pope, in the eyes of most Vatican watchers, has so altered the tone of the papacy—the face it presents to the faithful and to the world at large—that style has become substance. “Even if he were to die tomorrow,” remarks Michael Higgins, a distinguished Canadian Catholic intellectual now teaching at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., “I do not believe his successor could go back to the old ways.”

For Higgins, “it’s been the best 100 days in papal history, probably the most consequential since Innocent III.” Higgins means consequential in a diametrically opposed way: when Innocent came to the papal throne 815 years ago, his reign completed the apotheosis of the heir of the fisherman into the ruler of Christendom, a figure suspended between heaven and earth. Francis, on the other hand, “has begun a process of demystifying the office that’s been as far-reaching as turning the House of Windsor into a Scandinavian monarchy—from Benedict to him, it’s been like going from the London landau to riding a bicycle through Copenhagen.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aries—first of his papal name, nationality, continent and religious order—began walking his different path immediately after his election, by asking the crowd outside St. Peter’s to pray for him, rather than offering them a blessing. He hopped on a minibus to go back to his hotel, rather than the papal limo. He wears a plain cross, not pontifical jewels. He nixed the customary change-of-regime bonuses paid Vatican employees (they averaged $2,100 after Benedict was elected). He lives in a Vatican guest house, not the papal apartments, where he eats breakfast with the staff and other guests, talking freely to them all. Against all custom he travels in elevators with other passengers. He has kind words for atheists, and even the possibility of their salvation, at least if they are dedicated to the service of the poor.

He washed the feet of women as well as men, Muslims as well as Catholics, in an unprecedented, even shocking version of the ancient Holy Thursday ritual. He refers to himself almost always not by any of his exalted titles, such as Vicar of Christ, but as bishop of Rome, a pastoral office. He has condemned “the cult of money” and the suffering exacted by austerity measures in Europe, “slavery” in the Bangladeshi garment industry, and the Mafia. He preaches about the devil as often as he does about St. Francis. He may well have performed an exorcism in St. Peter’s Square. Most disconcertingly, he says what he’s thinking while he’s thinking it. There are holy people in the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, Francis told a group of visiting Latino nuns and monks, but also a “current of corruption,” and a network of gay men: “We will have to see what we can do.”

Francis seems, in the opinion of Arthur Liebscher, an American Jesuit who often encountered him in Argentina in the 1980s, to be working out his thoughts—aloud, in public—on just what problems face the world’s largest Church and what should be done about them, with very little reference to precedent or ruffled feathers. He is engaged in a “radical rewriting of his office, from a theocratic pulpit to a ministry,” says Higgins, who believes the most revealing comment about his pontifical aims that Francis has yet made came in a mass only two weeks after his election. Priests, the Pope said, again departing from a prepared text and clearly including himself, must be close to the people, “shepherds with the smell of sheep.”

It has all made Francis the most wildly unpredictable pope in centuries. Dangerously unpredictable, in fact, for those heavily invested in the ecclesiastical status quo. They include lower-level bureaucrats for whom maintaining papal protocol, liturgical fidelity and court ceremonial is “their life,” as Higgins put it, and those far higher in the Vatican food chain, where misconduct has historically been swept under a rug. Those caught swimming in the “current of corruption” cannot expect a soft landing this time.

For no one doubts, despite the deliberate pace so far—the bank appointment was among the first crucial personnel moves—that under this pope massive change is coming to the Church. In the same conversation in which he mused about seeing “what we can do” about the Curia, Francis added that “the cardinals of the commission will move it forward,” in October when they start issuing recommendations to him.

He was referring to the eight cardinals from every continent whom he appointed to advise him in reforming the bureaucracy. The panel, which has only one Vatican cardinal, is loaded with the Curia’s severest critics, all men who are (or were), like Francis, also pastors of their dioceses. They include Sean Patrick O’Malley, currently the archbishop of Boston and a Capuchin friar who has garnered enormous respect for the forthright way he has tackled his grim lot, cleaning up the sexual abuse situations he inherited in every diocese where he has served, and George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia, who was perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Curia in the cardinals’ pre-conclave meetings.

Participants in those discussions sought term limits on Vatican postings to prevent priests from becoming career bureaucrats, and demanded the Vatican strip the secrecy from its opaque finances through better financial reports. Virtually everyone, including Cardinal Bergoglio, agreed the bureaucracy needed a wrenching directional change, oriented to serving bishops in their dioceses, rather than the opposite.

The papacy remains an absolute monarchy, though, and the eight cardinals are advisers, not legislators. In the end, Francis will make the call. Vatican watchers naturally try to read the tea leaves of his off-script remarks for hints of future action—no easy task, as shown by his recognition, newsworthy primarily for its frankness, of the presence of homosexuals in the Curia. There is no way of being sure what Francis actually said, let alone meant: the Spanish-language notes his visitors made afterwards use an English-derived phrase (“lobby gay”). The Pope, who reportedly understands English far better than he speaks it, may have quoted that now-standard English label, gay lobby, or said something else his hearers rendered as such. Nor is it possible to determine how hostile his remark was: Francis did not, by the evidence of the leaked notes, link the corruption with the gay clerics.

Some observers connect the Pope’s thinking with his cultural background—the classic Latin American mix of doctrinal conservatism and economic radicalism. “Even for a South American, Francis’s piety is traditional,” says Father Liebscher, a specialist in Argentinian history who teaches at the Jesuit Santa Clara University in California. Liebscher agrees with those, like Michael Higgins, who see the Jesuit in the Pope as offering the clearest pointers to his future actions—“the asceticism, the indifference to rank and the perks of office, the dedication to service and to the Roman Catholic Church as the church of the poor,” in Higgins’s words—with a caveat. Bergoglio is an Argentinian Jesuit, spiritually formed in a distinct religious and social cauldron.

From their founding during the Catholic Reformation, the Jesuits have had a complicated relationship with the papacy, sometimes the favourite agents of papal will—“answering those needs that wouldn’t otherwise be filled,” says Liebscher. “Historically that always meant education and missions, though today the missions are to the marginalized, not the heathen.” Other times, though, the order was suppressed or viewed with suspicion for its intellectual daring and rebellious streak, as it was in Latin America during the 1970s heyday of liberation theology, later condemned by the Vatican for straying into Marxist intellectual territory. It’s no accident there has never before been a Jesuit pope.

Liebscher was studying in Santa Fe, 400 km northwest of Buenos Aires, in 1987, when Bergoglio came to stay for a few weeks. “He didn’t speak much—I’m impressed how chatty he is as Pope—and what we all noticed was how disciplined he was in his prayer life, an example for the younger guys. That and the tensions that surrounded his entourage.” As the past head of his order in Argentina, Bergoglio had been spiritual director for a lot of the younger men. “They were all formed by him, sharing his stern dedication to both the religious life and to the poor,” says Liebscher, adding “an Uruguayan Jesuit once told me Bergoglio may not have been a liberation theologian, but ‘he certainly thought like one.’ ” Bergoglio, in fact, was that very Argentinian figure, a caudillo, a strongman like dictator Juan Perón. “A religious caudillo, a benign one, but a caudillo,” Liebscher sums him up, a man who made his own decisions and pulled everyone along with him.

What made Bergoglio a polarizing figure in his order was not the charge raised at his election, that he had effectively handed over two liberation theology Jesuit activists, kidnapped and tortured in 1976, to the ruling military by refusing to endorse the priests’ ministry. “Within the order, the consensus was he did what he could to protect two guys who didn’t have the sense to get out of the line of fire,” Liebscher says. (Both men were freed by Bergoglio’s secret activity: he arranged for dictator Jorge Videla’s family priest to call in sick so that Bergoglio could say mass in Videla’s home and successfully plead for mercy.) No, what made Bergoglio stand out, the American Jesuit says, was his total emotional and spiritual adherence to the 1972 decision by the order as a whole to embrace the preferential option for the poor: “The Spanish-speaking provinces were more split than any others on the issue and Bergoglio was always on the cutting edge.”

He has ever since applied his devotion to the cause of the marginalized entirely within orthodox belief and in an utterly pragmatic way, “He’s a whatever-works, one-step-at-a-time guy,” says Liebscher, “so I’m pretty sure there’s no overarching plan for his pontificate.” But there is one clash the American does see coming. Rome is clericalism central, heartland of the concept of the priesthood as the real Church, rightly privileged far above the laity, and the city’s new bishop is clericalism’s “sworn enemy.” “The only time I ever saw him visibly irritated with another person was when someone said, ‘Father so-and-so preferred to say mass by himself, a private experience.’” A church rite is no one’s private affair, retorted an angry future pope, “it is a service for the people.”

Between now and his potentially fateful meeting with his cardinal advisers in October, Francis won’t be idle. Looming above everything is his surely triumphant return to South America in late July for Catholic World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. Whether he will connect with young people in the way John Paul II did is the next big question, but Higgins has no doubt of the answer. Francis, after all, has connected with almost everyone (aside from arch-traditionalists) in his diverse, 1.2-billion strong Church. “I have spoken to countless Catholics, lay and clergy, and they have all simply been energized by him.” And when those youths ask him questions, what might he answer? “Who knows?” laughs Higgins. “He’s capable of anything.”


Fr William Grimm MM, based in Tokyo, is the publisher of ucanews.com

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