Pope Francis: The Vatican’s rebel

For those invested in the status quo, he’s the most dangerously unpredictable pope in centuries

Radical in white

Ettore Ferrari/EPA/Corbis

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.”


Pope Francis: The Vatican’s rebel

  1. Thank you, Mr Bethune, for this overview of the first 100 or so days since the election of Pope Francis and the portrait you traced of his person.

    I need to point out a few things I consider errors, though.

    Mr. Higgins said that ”from Benedict to him, it’s been like going from the London landau to riding a bicycle through Copenhagen”. I really don’t like when Francis is put up against Benedict, in any way. True, Pope Benedict did wore soberly-beautiful liturgical vestments, but not for himself, only to reinstill the sense of the presence of God in the Sacred Liturgy, a sense that has been greatly lost in the last decades.

    Benedict, as we know, is a somewhat shy person. He might not have caught the eyes of the journalists and many other people like Francis does. But he did visit prisons, meet with sex abuse victims (media outlets even reported tears at one such meeting), give large sums of money to people afflicted by earthquakes, etc. I read somewhere that, when he met someone, that had person felt like the most important person in the room, that he paid great attention to the people he met.

    Benedict was afflicted with heart problems and his age was putting a toll on his capacities, especially toward the end of his pontificate. For all we know, the immensitude of the task at hand, compared with his frail capacities, might have led him to resign, leaving the task to someone in better shape.

    Even Pope Francis paid tribute on many occasions to his predecessor, including for what he has done to eradicate the sex abuse in the Church.

    Poor Benedict was despised since day 1 of his election because he was identified as someone cracking down on dissenters, which is not for the least a true image of his personnality. When Francis visited him after his election, he brought him an icon of ”Our Lady of humility”: truly a reference to the meek personnality of Joseph Ratzinger.

    Francis his truly a remarquable pope, but one need not put Popes one against another.

    Finally, I disagree with the juxtaposition of ”liturgical fidelity” and ”court ceremonial”. It seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what the Liturgy really is. It is more than a ceremonial, it is a prayer. Fidelity to liturgical norms is not a game played by powerful kings, but rather a sign of humility toward the mystery of God, which we cannot manipulate nor control.

  2. Best article of the many I have read about this fascinating new pope. As one of the “countless Catholics….energised by him” ( and indeed pulled by him out of sadness and disaffection because of the state of the church) it encapsulated everything I have seen and felt about the man, the direction he wants to take, and his strength to do it. How exciting it has been to see him attend to the priority of engaging and attending – with, it feels, each and very one of us. I have become a “pope geek” purely because of the smile it brings to my face and heart. The homilies, the audiences, the statements of unity with all people’s – all riveting. Thanks for telling me lots I knew, and lots I didn’t.

  3. I learned something new here – but not sure that is the complete picture of him as the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina (that tension during his leadership was caused by his complete adherence to preferential option for poor, also known as liberation theology without the armed resistance).
    I see now that he gets his self-assurance from being a caudillo. I am amazed at how at ease he is at being a Pope – like he was born to do it (why would the Holy Spirit give him another go at it after 2005!). I was scared for him as with any that would have come out from that last conclave. I still pray for him with the immense task set before him. But I am reassured that this man of God, Vicar of Christ can do the job more than any other. Yes, I am one of those energized faithful.

    • Liberation theology is something different than “preferential option for the poor” even if their supporters would like to think so. Bergolio had nothing to do with Liberation theology which was based on Marxist/ Leninist ideology. The Church will never use political means to conquer poverty, but remains the largest charity in the world, by far.

      • Aw. Just because you bring out the Marxist/Leninist label doesn’t mean LT is not for “preferential option for the poor”. The reason why Bergoglio was against LT is because its proponents more often resort to armed struggle to bring down the superstructures of oppression – he is for finding all solutions to alleviate poverty just not to kill and wound the Body of Christ for it.

  4. oh he does seem like a wonderful man. there is still the issue of that golden chair http://wp.me/P2ySV9-rt

    • Jealous?

      • no Aurora 7. I wouldn’t think to sit upon a symbol of currency while children starve. just not in my nature I suppose, hm http://wp.me/P2ySV9-ra

        • Frank it’s easy for us to sit back and make these different observations. In Pope Francis defence he can’t get rid of all the trappings in one day, Your talking about traditions and artifacts that have been in place for centuries. The Jewels the Throne are all works of art that belong to the church not to him. He has already made some drastic changes that are no doubt throwing folks around the Vatican into a state of shock. I would not be surprised to see the throne replaced someday but these changes take time. Keep praying for this guy he looks like he in on the right track. His laundry list is centuries long and he needs all the support he can get.

  5. Francis is certainly on the right track. He must consider these twenty three reforms: http://amzn.to/YHfNiK

  6. I, too do not like comparisons of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Each has a different personality but their teachings do not differ. By the way, Pope Benedict also asked the people to pray for him after his election as Pope and both he and Pope John Paul II said the same about atheists. Jesus died for the redemption of all people but everyone might not accept this redemption. .

    • Well, there shouldn’t be any difference since the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. It is how they project themselves and how the media project them that makes them look different.

  7. Interesting and valuable article, though there’s some confusion with the Spanish language. When pope Francis talks about the “lobby gay” he is just saying “the gay lobby”. In most of South America, both “lobby” and “gay” have been incorporated into daily Spanish language as full words with the same meaning as in English, even though the ‘proper’ translation would have been “cabildeo homosexual”.

  8. Pope Francisco will become the great reformer of the Catholic Church. It is a true Christian, full of humility and meekness as Jesus Christ taught us that we should be

  9. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to admire this Pope Francis- and just like a Robert Ludlum novel, he is going to be the catalyst uncovering the money laundering illegalities – he is also courageous enough to address the homosexual cabal and clean it out – oh we have to hope that he is well protected until the job is done – remember Pope John Paul I – 33 days – but in today’s world of instant ‘everything’ – we can all be somewhat comforted in knowing that what happened to him, and then covered up, can’t happen again – good luck my Catholic friends!

  10. I am gladdened.. or encouraged.. or maybe it’s hopeful, to see what potentially amounts to a “paradigm shift” within the church. I hope he can and will stay the course, and is strong enough to take on the “bureaucratically entrenched cronyism” that has long been the borderline corupt and scandal-ridden standard within the Vatican. Even though I’m not a Catholic, I will still feel somehow saddened or let down if this just proves to be a deliberate ploy to put new window dressing on the church. Good luck, great wishes and Godspeed to you Francis. Please reform and reform some more. People may actually beleive again if you can convince the so-called pious bastions the “Church” to follow the words of Jesus. It would be a welcome change for many.