A new road for Rome
The radical changes of Pope Francis’ first nine months, by Paul Vallely
It is nowhere near a year since Pope Francis took office, but already he looks set to be a great reforming Pope.
There is more to this than his gestures of ostentatious humility – living in a hostel, carrying his own suitcase and making calls on his mobile phone. There is more to it even than his personal warmth which has won over many outside his own denomination.
When on 6 November he embraced and kissed a man with immensely disfiguring neurofibromatosis – the disease which led to one prominent sufferer being called Elephant Man – the public responded with fulsome praise. “I’m not a Catholic but…” many website fans began.
But that is not all. Behind the scenes, Pope Francis has set about some radical, even revolutionary changes, which are altering how Roman Catholicism has been seen by outsiders for the last half century. Some traditionalists are suspicious and wary. But most of his flock are delighted, with many lapsed Catholics returning to the faith.
Most people are profoundly surprised by all this. But anyone who has read my book Pope Francis: Untying the knots will have had some inkling of the kind of changes the man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio might make.
For he has made massive change in his own life. Until the age of 50 he was a conservative and authoritarian leader of the Jesuits in Argentina. Then, in a process which the book pieces together like a detective story, he underwent a profound spiritual conversion after being sent into exile having deeply divided the province’s Jesuits into pro and anti Bergoglio factions. In a recent interview he acknowledged this. “I lived a time of great interior crisis,” he has said.
He emerged as a humble, consultative champion of the poor who went on to become “Bishop of the Slums” and over the next 20 years transformed the face of the Church in Buenos Aires.
Now he is bringing that transformation to the wider Catholic church. His complex political background, especially during the Dirty War under which 30,000 people “disappeared” in Argentina, means that the man who treads the world stage today is not just an icon of religious simplicity. He is also a church politician of considerable sophistication and shrewdness.
The dysfunctional and self-serving Vatican bureaucracy known as the Curia in Rome is learning that rapidly. He surprised them first with big gestures. He washed the feet of a Muslim woman. He hugged ordinary churchgoers after Mass outside the church. He phoned people back when they wrote to him. He refused to be judgemental about gays, overturning decades of thinly-veiled Vatican hostility. He said that atheists could go to heaven provided they lived good and decent lives. Bit by bit, he is demythologising the papacy.
But there are key organisational changes too. He is overhauling the Vatican Bank which has been plagued with scandals over money-laundering. October saw the first meeting of the new Council of Cardinals, known as the C8 because it has eight members – all of them strong critics of the Curia in the past. It is the first flicker of a new collegiality within the Church to dismantle the model of papacy as absolute monarchy cemented by the last two popes. One church historian described this as the “most important step in the history of the Church for the past 10 centuries”.
Francis has put reformers into key jobs like that of his first minister, the secretary of state, a title he has stripped of its secular connotations by renaming it papal secretary. He has called a synod for next year to look at pastoral issues like lifting the ban on remarried Catholics taking Communion. In February he will name some new cardinals; whom he choses will be revealing.
There have been no major changes of doctrine, and it would be unrealistic to expect any. And he has been canny in not overturning the last two big appointments of the previous pope, Benedict XVI: Archbishop Georg Gänswein, as the pope’s private secretary, and Archbishop Gerhard Müller as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog. To have dismissed them would have looked too much of a slap in the face of his predecessor, whom he likes to call “the old man”.
But Francis has been outspoken about what he sees as the Church’s failings in the past. It had had grown “obsessed” with “small minded rules” and lost sight of the importance of compassion. Without change “the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards”.
So expect no more culture wars over abortion, bioethics and sexuality. The new papal secretary, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, is a career diplomat who has specialised in international peace missions. As one cardinal told me: “The new pope plays for the same team. But he kicks the ball in an entirely different direction.”
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent. His book Pope Francis: Untying the knots is published by Bloomsbury
This article was published in the December 2013/January 2014 edition of Reform.