Pope Francis, one year on
Opinion: How successful has the pontiff been in his church reform plan?
‘Pope Francis wants a poor church and a church which reaches out to the poor. He challenges those who seem to think that we can continue to maintain an inward-looking Church, protected by safe closed doors, where we allow in only the purest of heart and where we rush back inside the moment we feel unconformable.’ Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis have much in common. Neither was the pundits’ favourite and their election came as a surprise to many. They both became pope at an age at which most people have long since retired. Despite their age, both realised there was a need to open windows and bring in fresh thought to the church, and, in the case of Pope Francis, to ensure even unopened windows would become transparent.
What popes John and Francis have most in common is that both were, above all, pastors. They both had reached high office, but both realised that exercising high office meant living out the same calling and lifestyle that had initially inspired them to become priests; there was nothing contradictory about a pope acting and living like a good, ordinary, caring and holy parish priest.
Begins with Mass
Like any parish priest, Pope Francis begins each day with a Mass open to different groups, at which he preaches simple, unscripted, yet profound reflections of the Gospel of the day. He hears confessions. He likes meeting people and is energised by meeting people. He is at home with those who are troubled; he often responds to their letters by calling them personally on the telephone. Seeing a young man whose face was covered in sores, he did not ask him what disease he had: he kissed him.
One of the first things the Vatican bureaucracy – just like any other – seeks to do for a new pope is to tell him how he should act. Pope Francis, from the very first moment of his election, showed that that was not going to be the case with him. He refused ornate vestments; he travelled back from the conclave to the residence of Santa Marta in a minibus with his fellow cardinals; he has remained in Santa Marta ever since and the limousines have been sent back to the garages.
Pope Francis is a master communicator. He uses earthy, colourful, short and pithy phrases. He speaks of “shepherds who smell of their sheep”; he says religious life is not “a bottle of distilled water”; he describes the church as a “field hospital” where injuries are treated. The three words that he recommends to married couples are simple and direct and for daily use: “Please, thank you, and I am sorry.”
He also uses short phrases to indicate things and attitudes that he does not like. When he does not like an attitude, he says so sharply: “Seminarians who act like little monsters end up being little monsters in parishes.”