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Reading the signs of Pope Francis as reformer

St. Francis seems to truly guide the new pontiff

  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
  • Vatican City
  • March 19, 2013
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To the hungry eyes of the world looking for clues about how he will govern the Roman Catholic Church, the first days of Pope Francis' papacy provided abundant hints that his leadership style will mark a definite break from his predecessor.

Style is very much substance in the ritualized world of the Vatican, but Francis' early steps showed that he might also bring some much-desired fresh air to what Italians call “Oltretevere”, which translates “beyond the Tiber”, to refer to the sometimes puzzling alterity of Vatican goings-on.

The change should not so much be on controversial doctrinal and ethical issues, from abortion to divorce to married priests. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio has often shown to have come from the same mold as his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But Francis' repeated stress, both in words and actions, on a poorer, simpler church that eschews the medieval pomp and elaborate rites somewhat brought back into favor by his predecessor, might also lead to a different approach to the unyielding and cumbersome Vatican bureaucracy.

The last year of Benedict's papacy has been marked by the Vatileaks scandal, which brought to light allegations of corruption and infighting within the top echelons of the Vatican hierarchy.

The very inner sanctum of papal power – the familiar and mostly unseen circle of those closest to the pope, known as the “papal family” – was revealed to be at the center of the scandal, with the arrest of the pope's own personal assistant.

But throughout Benedict’s pontificate – from the pope's Regensburg speech that irked Muslims, to overtures to traditionalist Catholics that worried Jews, to the scandals that surrounded efforts to reform the Vatican Bank – the Vatican central administration has often been accused of weakening, rather than supporting, the pope's actions and his attempts to inspire new vigor to the shrinking Western church.

In the run-up to the two-day conclave that elected him as Pope Francis, many cardinals hinted that reforming the Curia – making it leaner, more dependable and less a source of repeated scandals and embarrassments for the Universal Church – would be one of the jobs the new pontiff would have to undertake.

Francis himself paved the way for his election with a brief and powerful speech to Cardinals on Monday, March 11, centered on “purification” and condemning “careerism.”

On Saturday, with one of his first government acts, Francis provisionally reappointed – as is customary – the heads of all Vatican departments and councils. But he expressly did so “donec aliter provideatur,” a Latin expression that means “until it is decided otherwise.”

Moreover, the Vatican stressed that Francis “wants to take some time to reflect, pray and discuss before making any definitive appointment or confirmation.”

This is in marked contrast to how Benedict handled the handover of power after his election in 2005. At that time, he quickly reappointed all the heads of Vatican departments “until the end of their five-year term.”

Francis’ first move in the Curia strongly suggests that, after the Conclave, things will not simply go back to “business as usual.”

But the Argentinian Jesuit offered other telling signs that things might be headed for change ever since his first appearance as pope.

Minutes after his election, he reportedly shunned the elaborate golden cross offered to him by the Papal Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Guido Marini, preferring to keep the iron one he's had for decades.

Then, he asked the people gathered in St. Peter's square to silently pray over him before imparting his blessing.

Even his familiar style of addressing the crowd – “Good evening,” “Good night and good rest” – made an impression on the Romans who had waited for hours in the rain to be witnesses to his election.

But keen observers have mostly highlighted that, in his first address, Pope Francis mostly referred to himself as the “bishop of Rome” – the papacy's original title – interpreting it as a sign that he might focus more on the role of local churches after years of Vatican centralization.

While sometimes the Vatican stepping-in has been welcomed – such as when it decreed that all credible accusations of abuse against priests must be referred to Rome rather than being left lying in obscure diocesan archives – in other cases, from ecumenical relations with Anglicans to the investigation of US nuns to disciplining bishops on flimsy doctrinal grounds, it has been criticized for its heavy-handedness and disregard for local sensitivities.

On another sensitive theme that will probably shape Francis' papacy at the international level – relations with Muslims – his same name of choice seems to herald a move in the right direction.

As Omar Sacirbey pointed out, St. Francis – the saint of the poor that Bergoglio said was the origin for his choice of papal name – in 1219, during the fifth Crusade, crossed enemy lines to meet with Malik al-Kamil, the young sultan of Egypt.

While it is disputed whether he did so to try to build peace or to proselytize, Francis definitely tried to engage with words an enemy that most Christians of the time considered worthy only of engaging with swords.

Egypt’s Al-Ahzar university, the most respected scholarly center of Sunni islam, welcomed the move and said it hoped Francis’ papacy would mark a break form the troubled relations of Muslims with Benedict.

Finally, on Saturday, Pope Francis had his first meeting with journalists – a classic for newly elected popes.

“Be assured that the Church, for her part, highly esteems your important work,” he told the 5,000 or so media who are in Rome to cover the Conclave. “Your work calls for careful preparation, sensitivity and experience, like so many other professions, but it also demands a particular concern for what is true, good and beautiful,” he added.

In this, he followed Benedict's footsteps. The German pope, despite being at the centered of several storms that media attention helped amplify, was always adamant in defending the media's role in uncovering scandals such as clerical sex abuse – despite the skepticism and sometimes outright hostility towards the media of the Roman Curia.

But Francis also had an extra gift for the tired hacks – “You really worked, didn’t you?,” he jokingly asked journalists – who took part in the frenzied media circus of conclave coverage: a behind the scenes account of how things went into the Conclave, something most journalists have been craving for since his election.

Here it is, in the pope's own words:

“Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story.

“During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a good friend, a good friend!

“When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two-thirds, there was the usual applause because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: ‘Don't forget the poor!’

“And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end.

“Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.

“These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

“Afterwards, people were joking with me. ‘But you should call yourself Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need a reform….’ And someone else said to me: ‘No, no, your name should be Clement’. But why?

“’ Clement XV: thus you pay back Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!’"

 

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