Pope Francis: revitalising the Catholic church
On St Valentine’s Day last month, after days of rain, Rome suddenly found itself bathed in warm sunshine. The canopy of cloudless blue materialised just in time, because in St Peter’s Square around 10,000 engaged couples, from 40 countries, were gathering to receive papal blessings.
As with any event that involves Pope Francis, the level of interest outstripped all expectations. This, after all, is a pope enjoying his own extended honeymoon period. Intended for the cavernous Pope Paul VI auditorium, the first-ever festa dei fidanzati, or lovers’ party, had to be transferred to the biggest Catholic stage of all.
There might have been a downpour, but of course there wasn’t. As usual, in the first 12 months of what is turning out to be a game-changing papacy, things worked out brilliantly. “It was so great for us to be here,” said Lucia Huang, who will marry her fiancé, Antony Lai, this December. The couple had travelled 6,000 miles from Taipei to be there. “In Taiwan this pope is a hero,” added Lucia. “We know all about his small car and the way he lives.”
The Pope, Jorge Bergoglio, did not disappoint. Before extolling the virtues of a love “per sempre” (for ever), he even gave the crowd a mildly risqué joke. “We all know there isn’t a perfect family, neither a perfect husband nor a perfect wife. And let’s not talk about the perfect mother-in-law,” he said. The young crowd loved it.
Within a year, Bergoglio, formerly Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now leader of the world’s 1 billion-plus Roman Catholics, has transformed the plummeting reputation of the 2,000-year-old institution he leads. Veterans have been left open-mouthed. Sean-Patrick Lovett, director of English programming at Vatican Radio, came to Rome in 1977. He has seen Pope Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI come and go. But he has never witnessed anything like this. “In recent times it’s felt like I’ve had to defend my faith, to defend the fact that I am a Catholic,” says Lovett. “Now I’ve never been so proud to be a Catholic working in the Vatican. At the moment I am just enjoying the man. I’m drawing inspiration from him.”
It’s not only Catholics who are impressed. Way beyond the ranks of the faithful, the first Latin American pontiff has wowed the world. Analyses, encomiums and awards have tumbled forth at a dizzying pace. The liberal American media cannot get enough of him. Time magazine pronounced Francis man of the year. Gawker, the American gossip site, took time out to salute the man it called “our cool new pope”. In JanuaryRolling Stone magazine, home to profiles of the likes of Britney Spears and Johnny Depp, ran a 10,000-word piece. Even graffiti artists have done their bit: one wall close to St Peter’s basilica carries a portrait of the 77-year-old Argentine as Superman in a cassock.
What on earth is going on? A year ago the Catholic church was arguably at its lowest ebb since the Reformation. The shy, intellectual and conservative Benedict XVI had just astonished the world by retiring in exhaustion, the first pope to retire since Gregory XII in 1415. There was outrage at ongoing sex abuse scandals and associated cover-ups –Cardinal Keith O’Brien had just resigned his position after an Observer exposé of his sexual misconduct. Benedict’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, had leaked private documents from Benedict’s personal desk in an attempt to expose corruption within the Roman Curia. The Vatican bank was under investigation over money laundering. Amid the chaos, pews in Europe and the United States were emptying as parishioners, appalled at revelations of paedophile priests, joined those alienated by an aloof church’s obsession with issues of sexual morality.
Even in Latin America, Bergoglio’s backyard and a modern bastion of Catholicism, the pentecostal and evangelical churches were on the rise. A revolution was required. According to Catholic tradition, the conversion of St Francis of Assisi took place when Christ called out to him from a crucifix in the crumbling medieval church of San Damiano: “Francis, rebuild my house, which is falling into ruins.” Given the dire circumstances 800 years later, it is easy to see why returning to the legacy of one of the church’s best-loved saints appealed to Bergoglio last March.
The choice of name, a papal first, was greeted with cheers from the 115 cardinals who had just elected him. But did they – did anyone – expect what has followed? Elected at a time of crisis, Pope Francis has emulated his namesake by choosing poverty, humility and solidarity with the poor as the route map to the church’s salvation. In the Sistine Chapel a year ago, he called on the church to “come out of herself and to go to the peripheries” of life to meet the marginalised and the excluded. Days later he told assembled journalists that he wants a “poor church for the poor”. Many religious figures have said the same through the ages. But the first non-European pope for more than a millennium appears to mean it. The question is: can he deliver? And what would that church look like?
A papal critique of capitalism is nothing new. Back in 1891, as Marxists plotted revolution across the continent of Europe, Leo XIII condemned “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class”. Even Pope Benedict XVI, maligned by liberals as a slightly sinister conservative with a taste for expensive shoes, used his final New Year address to point to “hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor”. But Benedict’s case was not helped by his affection for the many trappings and privileges of papal power. One priest based in Rome recalls a speech on social justice delivered in Benedict’s native Germany. “It was a great speech. And then he left with an entourage of 20 limousines and two helicopters. He just didn’t see any contradiction.”
Francis, by contrast, is talking the talk and walking the walk. With relish, he has ridden roughshod over the conventions of the papacy. Rather than follow his predecessors and occupy the Apostolic Palace (“You could fit 300 people in here!” he apparently told aides), he chose to stay on at the modest Casa Santa Marta guesthouse, his home during the conclave. He has rejected the traditional red mozzetta lined with ermine, and the red shoes to which Benedict was so attached, in favour of black boots and a plain white cassock. Instead of the usual pectoral cross of gold, he wears an inexpensive metallic-looking crucifix which he brought from Buenos Aires (the look is apparently catching on in the Vatican). He travels around Rome in a blue Ford Focus. From the moral high ground of this conspicuous lack of consumption, Francis has given the denizens of the world’s boardrooms, banks and offshore tax havens a rare old dressing down.
In his tub-thumping first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), Francis threw down the gauntlet to the wealthy in a way no pope has ever done before. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially,” reads one passage, “so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few.” After taking a swipe at “self-serving” tax evaders, Francis issues a startlingly direct message to the rich and powerful: “The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”
In January the same message was delivered in a papal letter read to the global business elite at Davos. Father Michael Czerny, who works at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was there. “Francis was saying to them: ‘You’ve done well; you’ve been given intelligence, creativity, capacity for innovation. You’ve earned well and now you must put these gifts to work. Now you must address the problem of those who are systematically excluded.’ In the room there was warm applause. So it’s up to them. We’ll see.”
Among Catholics who have long campaigned for social justice but found that cause submerged beneath controversies over gay marriage and abortion, there is a sense of relief and release. “It feels like there is a new sense of energy,” said Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP. “Francis has helped create a following wind for people working behind the scenes to alleviate poverty and social exclusion. You can feel it when church leaders such as Cardinal Nichols speak. They have spoken like that before, but now there is a real connection and authority there.” Non-Catholics are also taking note. In his Hugo Young lecture last month, Labour leader Ed Miliband argued that dealing with inequality had become a political priority in a way not seen for generations, adding: “We have a pope who says the same.”
In some of the wealthier outposts of the church, the response has been a good deal frostier. From Boston, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, Kenneth Langone, told the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, that the pope’s strictures were endangering philanthropic efforts to restore St Patrick’s Cathedral at a cost of $180m. A devout Catholic, Langone pointed out that Americans were among the biggest charitable donors in the world and expressed the hope that the pope would in future “celebrate a positive point of view rather than a negative one”. The conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh cut to the chase, describing Evangelii Gaudium as “pure Marxism”. Rather stylishly, Francis refuted the charge, but added: “In my life I have known many Marxists who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”
Criticism closer to home might worry him more. Faced with a pope who is as unorthodox as he is popular, Vatican traditionalists are worried.Norman Tanner, professor of church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, is one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of the Catholic church. He is also a fan. There is no doubting, he says, the significance and the dramatic impact of Pope Francis’s first 12 months.
“It’s been a remarkable success,” he says. “He’s opened a lot of windows. Before the Second Vatican Council [which opened in 1962], John XXIII said: ‘Open the window and let in some fresh air.’ And this is very similar.” But he adds a coda: “Some are uneasy, though. They think: ‘Is he opening the floodgates?'”
Last July, Father Bernd Hagenkord, a colleague of Lovett’s at Vatican Radio, was expecting a quiet news day. The pope was flying back from World Catholic Youth Day in Rio. Nothing to report then. But when Hagenkord tuned into a live feed, he discovered that an unplanned and unprecedented press conference was taking place at the back of the papal plane. “I was shocked. It was so dangerous. As he answered questions I was thinking: ‘OK, you answered that one well. Now please stop!'” Francis carried on for 80 minutes. When one journalist, scarcely believing her luck, took the opportunity to ask about the existence of a “gay lobby” inside the Vatican, the pope chose to make a broader point. “If someone is gay, and they seek the Lord, and they are in good faith, who am I to judge?” Instantly, the apparently off-the-cuff comment made headlines around the world. To give some context, Benedict had described homosexuality as an “intrinsic disorder”.
As commentators were quick to point out, the words indicated no doctrinal shift whatsoever. Francis was not about to sign off on gay marriage. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed President Cristina Kirchner‘s legalisation of same-sex relationships. But to paraphrase 1970s comedian Frank Carson, it was the way he said it. Here was a pope questioning his own right to leap to judgement. In the words of Tanner: “It was a statement about the church’s authority.”
There have been many other forays beyond the church’s comfort zone, or to “the periphery”, as Francis would put it. On Maundy Thursday, days after his election, Francis went to the Casal de Marmo, a young offender institution. There he washed the feet of 12 inmates aged between 14 and 21. One of them was a girl from Serbia, who thus became the first Muslim and the first woman ever to have their feet washed by a pope.
Such symbolic expressions of openness, inclusion and humility have been accompanied by a series of far-reaching moves to open up the decision-making process of the church. Habitually referring to himself as “Bishop of Rome” rather than Pope, Francis has moved to empower bishops’ conferences and free them from the authoritarian grip which Rome has exerted for decades. In October an extraordinary Synod of Bishops will meet to discuss family life. It is widely expected that the exclusion of divorcees from the sacraments – one of the most resented aspects of church doctrine among the faithful – will be looked at and revised. The creation of a so-called G8 of Cardinals to advise the pope on reform has been hailed by the Italian church historian Alberto Melloni as the “most important step in the history of the church for the past 10 centuries”.
For the first time in 50 years, one of the most conservative institutions in the world may be opening itself up to different voices and to change, glacial though that process might seem to the outside world. In an interview with Antonio Spadaro, the Italian Jesuit and editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis stated, as baldly as any pope could do, that the church, like any human institution, must be open to changing its mind.
“Human self-understanding changes with time,” he told Spadaro. “Let us think of when slavery was accepted, or the death penalty was allowed without any problem.” He added that “other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding”.
Little wonder then that Francis is inspiring optimism not seen since the heady days of Second Vatican Council. In the words of Tanner, the new pope is showing a willingness “to listen to what the world of the time (including the non-Catholic and non-Christian world) is saying and doing”.
There is listening, though, and then there is acting. In Paul Vallely’s masterly biography of Francis, Untying the Knots, the Argentine rabbi Abraham Skorka, who has known Bergoglio for more than two decades, tells Vallely: “He’s totally aware that he must in some sense be a revolutionary pope, not only for the Catholic church, but for the whole of humanity.” But revolutions require moments of decisive action. Just as church traditionalists have shaken their heads at a man who seems to prefer the title Bishop of Rome, there are also liberals who doubt that progressive intentions will translate into meaningful action. Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, is a Francis-sceptic.
“There is huge hope riding on this pope,” she says. “But so far it has just been gestures. Everyone is holding their breath before the Synod in October. I think it is likely there may be movement on divorcees and the sacraments. But what about the role of women in the church? What about the church and its relation to gay people?” She points to the results of a survey of German Catholics, intended to inform debate at the Synod. The German bishops’ report noted a huge disconnect between the laity and the church, “above all when it comes to premarital cohabitation, the status of the divorced and remarried, birth control and homosexuality”.
In England and Wales, the church has so far not disclosed the results of its own online survey, but Woodhead’s own research has found that a mere 8% of British Catholics look most to “the traditions and teaching of the church” for guidance. “The Catholic church is still deeply out of step in the west,” says Woodhead. “A lot of people are hopeful that with Francis that will change. I’m not too hopeful, though.” She recalls that in the famous Q&A on the plane back from Rio last summer, when the possibility of female priests was raised, Francis said simply: “With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no.”
Jon O’Brien, the chief executive of Catholics for Choice, a Washington-based organisation dedicated to supporting “a woman’s moral and legal right to follow her conscience on sexuality and reproductive health”, shares Woodhead’s doubts. “You would have to be seriously in denial not to recognise that Francis has brought about real change,” he says. “He’s not so much been a breath of fresh air as someone who has gone into the Vatican with an oxygen tank strapped to his back. He’s got the church out of a very difficult spot. But there’s a danger that people project something on to him that’s not quite there yet.”
An institution this ancient does not change overnight. After such an extraordinary 12 months, maybe progressive Catholics should concentrate on the bit of the glass that’s half full. That, at any rate, is what the Advocate, the oldest and largest LGBT publication in the United States, appears to be doing. Back in December, like Time, it named Pope Francis person of the year. Needless to say, he was the first pontiff to win the award. In a moving explanation of its choice, the magazine explained: “As pope, he has not yet said the Catholic church supports civil unions. But what Francis does say about LGBT people has already caused reflection and consternation within his church.
“The brevity of that statement (Who am I to judge?) and the outsized attention it got immediately are evidence of the pope’s sway. His posing a simple question with very Christian roots, when uttered in this context by this man, became a signal to Catholics and the world that the new pope is not like the old pope.”
No readers of the Advocate were invited to the St Valentine’s Day bash in St Peter’s Square last month. But what the hell. Maybe next year?
This piece was originally published by The Observer.