The papal spring

From the moment of the pope’s election, in March, there has been the sense that something remarkable has happened. But can Pope Francis implement his bold vision?


Nine months into the pontificate of Pope Francis, a revealing metropolitan myth has taken hold in Rome. Namely that once a week the pope removes his white robes, puts on parish-priest black and slips out of the Vatican late at night, incognito, to do the rounds of the city’s many down and outs, distributing money, cups of coffee and his blessing.

It required only an ambiguous answer in a recent interview from the official papal almsgiver, Archbishop Konrad Krajewsky, for this myth to take hold. Describing his unusual, centuries-old job, the archbishop seemed to suggest that sometimes when he and a couple of Swiss Guards leave the Vatican late at night to make the rounds of the poor and homeless, Pope Francis likes to come along too.

Even though Krajewsky has since clarified his remarks, and even though the Vatican press office has issued umpteen denials of the story, the myth has taken hold. After all, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, did he not go out late at night to offer food and comfort to the homeless?

Not only the faithful but also intrigued nonbelievers are ready to see this pope in the role of modern day Good Samaritan in disguise. In a few busy months, Pope Francis has appeared to turn one the conservative and hidebound Holy See on its head.

Is this not the man who has chosen to live in a Vatican B&B rather than in the Apostolic Palace? Is he not the pope who drives around in a Ford Focus, who eschews Vatican gala concerts, who asks if St Peter had a bank account, who washes the feet of Muslims during Easter week and who says “Who am I to judge” homosexuals?

Above all, is he not the pope who rails against a culture of “globalised indifference” and who wants a church “of the poor and for the poor”?

He is.

Nine months into his pontificate, both Rome and the church globally have been imbued with what the worldwide head of one religious order calls a “massive feel-good feeling”. That feeling is tangible twice weekly in the Vatican at the pope’s Sunday Angelus and his Wednesday public audiences, where his normality, warmth and ability to relate to people guarantee not only 75,000-strong crowds but also an endless succession of splendid photo-ops.

Nor is the “feel-good” factor restricted to just the faithful. The Vatican’s senior communications adviser, Greg Burke, says Pope Francis continues to engender a “tidal wave” of worldwide, secular media interest.

From the moment of his election, in March, there has been the sensation that something remarkable has finally happened. A pope with a mandate for change, and one who came “from far away”, had seen off ultraconservative Curia forces in a relatively quick election – Cardinal Bergoglio was elected in just two days.

Promising signs
But has Pope Francis changed anything? Nine months is a short time to effect meaningful and radical change. However, there have been plenty of promising signs, many of them outlined in the pope’s recent exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a document that reads like a blueprint for this pontificate – the “joy” of the gospel; the church’s option for the poor and suffering; inequality; ecumenism; dialogue with Islam; reform of the papacy itself; decentralisation of the church and much else besides all feature.

In what one cardinal calls Pope Francis’s “Utopian” vision, Evangelii Gaudium also reinforces his criticism of deregulated capitalism with comments such as “we also have to say ‘Thou Shalt Not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality”. Such criticism prompted Tea Party advocate Rush Limbaugh to call the document “pure Marxism”.

The biggest question in relation to Evangelii Gaudium, and indeed to this pontificate, now concerns not these signs and indicators but rather the extent to which these good intentions can be implemented. “There will be serious question marks if we are still in the same place in 12 months’ time,” says the same worldwide head of one religious order.

Minority elements in the Roman Curia, not to mention the universal church, have already given clear signals that they are less than enthusiastic about the Pope Francis roadmap.

In July, the Italian weekly L’Espresso reported that 57-year-old Monsignor Battista Ricca, freshly appointed to a senior post at the Vatican bank, IOR (Institute for Religious Works), was an active homosexual with a colourful and well-documented gay past. Vatican observers speculated that this report might have been intended as a Curia shot across the bows of the reform-minded pope. The message was: this is what happens if you continue to plough your own furrow, ignoring Curia advice. For the record, Ricca is still at his IOR post.

More recently, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the German archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller, in an October interview with the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano, forcibly underlined current church teaching regarding the ban on those who are remarried after divorce receiving the Eucharist.

The archbishop’s hard line seemed to contradict remarks made by Pope Francis on the flight back to Rome from the World Youth Day celebrations, in Brazil, in July, when he had said, “This is the moment for mercy,” in response to a question about the remarried. Furthermore, in Evangelii Gaudium, the pope says the Eucharist is “not a prize for the perfect but rather a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

The long-time Vatican critic and dissident Swiss theologian Hans Kung wrote in a recent article: “The credibility of Pope Francis will be immensely damaged if Vatican reactionaries stop him from soon translating his words into actions . . . The huge capital of trust that [Pope] Francis has built up in these opening months of the pontificate must not be squandered by the Curia.”

The pope, however, is no babe in the Vatican woods. He is ready for the Curia having had problems in his days as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when elements in the Curia tried to block the path of his trusted adviser Victor Manuel Fernandez, the current rector of Argentina’s Pontifical Catholic University. One of the pope’s earliest appointments was of Fernandez to the titular post of Archbishop of Tiburnia, and this summer Fernandez visited the pope in Rome to help with the writing of Evangelii Gaudium. In Italy, as they say, revenge is a plate best eaten cold.

In this “Vatican Spring” climate, however, there is a real risk that Pope Francis may have prompted unrealistic expectations, especially with regard to doctrinal change. He seems much more open to women, writing in Evangelii Gaudium that he wants them to have a bigger role in “decision making in different aspects of the Church’s life”. But this does not mean he favours their ordination: “The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion.”

Likewise, he suggests the church has “done little” to accompany women in “very difficult situations where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish”. However, that sympathy is juxtaposed with a total rejection of abortion.

Cultural shift
So, where is the Vatican Spring? One Holy See insider says it is only realistic to conclude that while the church’s teaching will not change, the application of that teaching will. It is what others call “a cultural shift”, an attempt to apply what Pope Francis, in a September address to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, called the “ancient pilgrimage rule of St Ignatius”.

“In one of his rules, St Ignatius says that whosoever accompanies a pilgrim . . . should go at the pilgrim’s pace, neither too far in front nor too far behind,” he said.

A more profound understanding of that “pilgrim’s pace” may emerge from the Synod on the Family in autumn 2014, where the bishops may be required to consider a far wider range of lay views than would normally cross their Synod desks.

Last month, the Holy See confirmed that an unprecedented 39-point questionnaire has been sent to the bishops conferences worldwide, calling on them to distribute the questions “as widely as possible . . . so that input from local sources” can be considered regarding issues as controversial as same-sex marriage, divorce, contraception and gay adoption.

This questionnaire, called the preparatory document, is not in itself new but its (online) extension to the laity is a clear sign of the Pope Francis times, an expression of his desire for a collegiate church of consultation and dialogue.

Even though change is a slow process, in one area of Vatican life the pace of Pope Francis-driven change is already obvious – the controversial Vatican bank. A cardinal recently went into the bank to lodge a modest amount of money into his account. To his surprise, he was kept waiting for some time before the transaction was completed:

“What is the matter? You do realise that I am a cardinal, don’t you?”

To which the IOR bank teller replied: “Oh yes, that is the point, you are in what we call a ‘socially unstable’ category and therefore we have to be extra careful.”

Under the German lawyer Ernst Von Freyburg, who was appointed president of the bank in February, it has been on a radical overhaul course, much sustained by Pope Francis. The Von Freyburg mantra requires the bank to be more open and transparent, while a team of experts from the global consulting firm Promontory has been going through every account with a view to identifying suspicious transactions and eliminating cases of money laundering or tax fraud. Even a cardinal, it seems, is not above suspicion.

The alleged mismanagement of the Vatican bank was one of the most hotly debated items at the Udienze Generali, or cardinals’ meetings, which preceded the conclave in March. The pope has instituted two special financial commissions, one to oversee the bank and the other to take an overall view of financial organisation at the Holy See.

In June, a reminder of the bank’s troubles came when Vatican employee Monsignor Nunzio Scarano was arrested on charges that, along with a former secret services agent and a shady financial dealer, he had attempted to illegally “import” €20 million into Italy, using his Vatican bank accounts.

Unlike in the past, when, for example, the Vatican claimed diplomatic immunity for Archbishop Paul Marcinkus in the infamous Banco Ambrosiano investigation, in the early 1980s, this time the Vatican collaborated with Italian investigators, resulting in Scarano’s arrest. He was recently released from prison, but, as of the time of writing, he remains under house arrest.

The road ahead of Pope Francis is rising with him. Yet as “a non-Italian Italian”, as one Curia figure dubs him, he is probably better equipped than most to deal with it. On top of that, he has long since begun to put together his own team, often diplomats with extensive experience in Latin American nunciatures.

Furthermore, although he is a good listener, the pope heeds his own counsel and makes his own decisions. In that sense, key figures in his entourage, such as his Italian secretary of state Pietro Parolin and his Maltese private secretary Alfred Xuereb, are just that – secretaries rather than policy makers. Pointedly, Parolin recently went out of his way to say publicly, “I am no sort of vice-pope.”

As for the papal almsgiver, the pope made his point by making him a bishop in August and increasing his budget. Even if the pope cannot go out on the beat with him, he sends a Vatican gendarme across to his office every morning with a list of people to visit, coffee to distribute, money and appeals for help answered. In that sense, the metropolitan myth is alive and well, as indeed is the pontificate of Pope Francis.

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