Changed times at Vatican as Pope Francis makes first public outing

New pontiff to meet predecessor Benedict at Castel Gandolfo on first day of papacy


Yesterday afternoon, by mistake, someone at the Italian Bishops Conference sent off a telegram of congratulations to Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, complimenting him on his election as Pope. The incident says much about the tsunami that has hit the Roman Curia and the Italian Catholic Church in the wake of the election of Pope Francis, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Vatican analysts continue to see this as a truly historic Conclave and not just for all the obvious reasons – first non-Europe an for nearly 1,300 years; first Latin America n ever; first Jesuit and so on. Vatican insiders also this election as a resounding defeat for the all powerful Curia, more emphatic than the 4-0 scoreline by which Milan lost to Barcelona in the Champions League this week.

Commentators argue that this unexpected result owes everything to the prolonged negative international publicity generated by the “Vatileaks” affair, an expression of the extent to which a cynical and corrupt Curia had completely lost the plot. Many believe that Pope Francis owes his election to a determined campaign by the “foreigners” in which the US Cardinals led by Tim Dolan of New York along with the Archbishop of Paris, Jean Vingts Trois, the Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn and a number of developing world Cardinals led the way.

Their basic call was “Basta”, enough of Curia intrigue. Throughout last week’s “congregations” of Cardinals, there were repeated calls for “fresh air” and “a new message” not to mention a call for greater collegiality in the running of the Church. That much we knew. What we could not have predicted with any certainty was that those Cardinals making such noises meant it for real this time, being keen to translate pious intentions into a palace putsch.

Put simply, it was time for a serious clean up, time to put an end to the dominance of the Curia. Some of this movement began at last autumn’s Synod where more than one Cardinal privately expressed their “incomprehension” at the the Holy See-Italian Bishops Conference-Silvio Berlusconi troika that has dominated Italian Church life for much of the last 20 years. Many suggested the obvious, that namely the Italian Church should be wary of as controversial a figure as the much investigated former Prime Minister.

As for the new Pope himself, Francesco (Francis) was up and out early this morning, maintaining his promise to visit the splendid Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray to the Madonna. In what was essentially a private visit, he spent half an hour in prayer before exiting from a side entrance much to the disappointment of some 300 Pope watchers.

His first public outing as Pope, then, was not an occasion of pomp and ceremony, rather a moment of personal prayer and reflection. The “Francesco Style” is already beginning to make itself clear. Nor is this lost on Romans this morning.

Walking around the Vatican area, it is hard to find anyone who was not struck by the manner in which he stepped out onto the Vatican balcony last night. At the newspaper kiosk, Paolo says to me:

“I don’t follow Church affairs much, and I don’t care much for some of our priests but this man seems different, I’d say above all humble and genuine…”

Roberta, who runs a bed and breakfast close to the Vatican, says immediately that he seems “simpatico”. Her friend, Livia, says that he reminds her of Pope John Paul 1, the short lived “smiling” Pope of 1978.

Inevitably, “Francesco” dominates all this morning’s front pages, with many papers headlining his first words from the balcony as Pope:

“I am Francesco and I come from far away…”

Indeed, he does. It seems the tsunami is only beginning.