Novelty of new pope still attracting crowds after 100 days

But not everyone is equally taken by the pontiff’s informality and lack of fuss

Pope Francis waves at the end of a canonisation Mass in Saint Peter’s Square last month. The pontiff “will undoubtedly continue to woo the masses as he dives into the adoring crowds”. Photograph: Reuters

Pope Francis waves at the end of a canonisation Mass in Saint Peter’s Square last month. The pontiff “will undoubtedly continue to woo the masses as he dives into the adoring crowds”. Photograph: Reuters

Tue, Jun 25, 2013, 00:00

On June 21st, Pope Francis sailed past the mark of 100 days since his election. Media interest has continued to report his daily activities and souvenir vendors in Rome are profiting from the swelling crowds which attend his public appearances.

The 76- year old Argentine continues to surprise observers and often frustrate those who live and work with him.

His decision to live in the Vatican’s functional Casa Santa Marta, a nondescript guesthouse built in 1992 rather than the 16th century Apostolic Palace, won general public admiration. Speaking with some schoolchildren three weeks ago, he explained how he preferred to live in community rather than on his own in the imposing papal apartments. “It is to keep my sanity,” he explained with a broad smile.

Not everyone agrees. The 80 or so priests and guests who now share the Pope’s living quarters have had to adapt to the new tenant. Arriving down for breakfast, he sits wherever he finds a place. While the priests were delighted at first at this arrangement, the novelty has worn off. The pontiff regularly questions the clergy on their work and suggests improvements. Not all take these contributions kindly.

A month ago he walked into the Secretariat of State unexpectedly. He asked the porter if there was anyone around to translate a document for him. The astonished porter explained that everyone had gone for lunch. The Pope then asked why all the lights were on and began to switch them off himself.

Each morning the Pope invites about 50 people to 7am Mass in the chapel. The first guests were the street cleaners and garbage collectors. In a brief unscripted homily after the Gospel the Pope uses down-to-earth language. These talks are now listened to more than his official texts.

Part of the Bergoglio attraction is the directness and simplicity of his speech. In sharp contrast to his immediate predecessors, Francis is unafraid to challenge Catholics and those who “run” the Church. He regularly slams those he terms as “satellite Catholics”, who dip in and out when it suits them, and those who say they are more in tune with God through the cosmos than through the Church. And yet the people applaud him.

There was a flutter of panic when the Pope started these off the cuff homilies. The press officer, himself a Jesuit priest, explained that the Pope was speaking in Italian, which is his second language. That was partly to explain his striking assertion that atheists could go to heaven.

People less interested in the Catholic Church’s views on eternity are impressed by Francis’s evident commitment to poor people and those who live with physical or mental difficulties. Meeting with journalists four days after his election he exclaimed “Ah, how I would like a poor church, and a church for the poor!” He himself has eschewed extravagance and lives a relatively uncluttered life. Actions speak louder than words and Francis has proved to be a person of action. It was not always thus.

Contemporaries record that the young Jorge Bergoglio was cautious by nature. As leader of the Jesuits in Argentina during the last three years of the Dirty War (1976-83) he did not publicly denounce the murders committed by the dictatorship. He later defended himself, saying that he could have endangered his companions, many of whom supported the opposition. Some even died with them.

Francis will undoubtedly continue to woo the masses as he dives into the adoring crowds to kiss babies and bless people. His bushy eyebrows and broad smile are now familiar to thousands. Many well-disposed Catholics are pleased to have a bishop who continues to visit hospitals, hospices, orphanages, slums and prisons, as he has for more than 20 years. But that is only part of the picture.

Vast numbers feel isolated from the “official” Church because of their sexuality, marital status and they way the feel they have been treated. Francis has to build on the first delicate layers of trust he has laid down.

Already the Pope has formed a committee of eight cardinals from five continents to assist him in administering the global Church of 1.2 billion nominal Catholics. It is a tentative step indicating genuine consultation and listening.

Francis will need the sense and courage to reform the things which require change and leave other things well enough alone. It requires great wisdom to see the difference.

Fr Michael Collins is author of Francis, Bishop of Rome, A Short Biography, published by Columba Press, € 9.99.

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