Early Returns on Pope Francis’ Pontificate

NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s still too early to gauge what the Holy Father plans in some key areas, but after an impressive start, a clearer picture is coming into focus.

(photo: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Now that the world has had a chance to examine Pope Francis in some detail, a clearer picture of the Holy Father is emerging, one that gives some important clues about where this pontificate is heading.

Drawing on his words and actions, testimonies of those who know him, as well as his previous interviews and writings from the time he was a cardinal, it’s clear that his overall concern, like that of every successor of Peter, is to draw others to Christ and the Gospel.

“He will bring out the freshness of the Gospel,” says Father Alfonso Riobó Serván, director of the Spanish Catholic publication Palabra. “That’s his way.”

But his style and emphases differ from his predecessors. One consistent theme is his emphasis on the poor and reaching out to those on the margins of society — something most visibly and frequently seen in his warmth and affection for the disabled and the vulnerable in St. Peter’s Square.

“The Pope has always been centered on bringing Jesus to the actual people,” says Msgr. Mariano Fazio, head of Opus Dei in Argentina. “He has been called the ‘father of the poor, the pope of the people.’”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio laid the foundation for an urban ministry that bore good fruit. His actions since becoming Pope, therefore, come as little surprise to those who know him.

Indeed, many would be surprised if he didn’t spontaneously minister to the homeless in Rome or invite the poor to have lunch with him at the Vatican (something, incidentally, that Benedict XVI did, but because the media didn’t cover these aspects of his pontificate, such gestures largely went unnoticed).

Further incidences of the Pope’s seemingly incongruous presence among the people can be expected.

Ever since his election, he has sought to be closer to others than his predecessor, embracing the faithful literally and figuratively. He has preferred to describe himself as the “bishop of Rome” rather than as the pope, and has eschewed many of the externalities associated with the papacy, from wearing his own pectoral cross instead of the papal one, to choosing — at least for now — to live in a Vatican guesthouse rather than at the Apostolic Palace. According to the website Vatican Insider, he recently confided to a friend that he prefers to live there because it is “less isolating” and he can be “near the people.”


The Power of Service

This isn’t mere show either, but coherent with his own personal simplicity, professed love of meekness and what he sees as a more effective method of evangelization. Stories abound of Cardinal Bergoglio’s simple and exemplary approach when interacting with others and his readiness to pick up the telephone and to be attentive to inquiries rather than have a secretary deal with such matters.

It’s also an approach consistent with his belief that true power is never imposed, but belongs to the one who serves.

“Let us never forget that authentic power is service and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross,” he said at his inauguration Mass.

He also wishes to teach the meaning of service through actions and gestures as much as through words. And when he does use words, he uses them sparingly and clearly. Pope Francis is no polyglot, nor is he a prolific writer like John Paul II or Benedict XVI. It’s conceivable, some say, that he may therefore not write an encyclical.

His liturgical tastes, too, are modest; he is said to be more interested in the heart of man than externals and canon law — an approach that has already unnerved some traditionalists. “His liturgical preferences are less solemn, more in the style of a parish priest,” says Father Riobó, but he believes that he “won’t touch” the extraordinary form of celebrating Mass and undo Benedict XVI’s work in that regard.

Even so, his devotion to the Eucharist, and particularly the sacrament of penance, are clear.

“The Pope has a great spiritual sense of worship and [importance of] reaching out to every human being,” says Msgr. Fazio. “In Buenos Aires in recent years, he has spontaneously promoted the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes, and it is bearing spiritual fruit.” Furthermore, Msgr. Fazio is sure the Pope will “pay particular attention to Eucharistic adoration and the preaching of the word.”


Curial Reforms

In terms of governance, Pope Francis is expected to reform the Roman Curia, despite it being an elusive goal for successive popes. The Curia’s management and communications also need an overhaul. 

But most officials are people of integrity, despite the Vatileaks scandal drawing attention to a few “bad apples,” who, according to some critics, hold Vatican positions.  

The Curia is the “least corrupt government that has been exemplary in many respects,” said Cardinal Julian Herranz, one of the three to lead a commission of inquiry into Vatileaks, in February.

Still, many, such as papal biographer George Weigel, believe reform is vital. “The cast of mind in the Roman Curia must be changed,” Weigel wrote in the journal First Things, “so that the entire Curia thinks of itself as its many good people now do: as servants of the New Evangelization, not as the 21st-century version of a papal court.”

But if Pope Francis does enact radical change, it will be a while in coming. In El Jesuita, a 2010 book of interviews with Cardinal Bergoglio, he said he distrusts his first impulses and has learned to take his time. “Once I am more tranquil, after I have passed through the crucible of solitude, I draw near to that which I must do,” he said. “But no one can save me from the solitude of decisions. One can ask for advice, but, in the end, one must decide alone.”

Yet many contend he’s well suited to the task. As head of Argentina’s Jesuits in the 1970s — a troubled time throughout Latin America — then-Father Bergoglio showed some gritty resolve when it came to management and in opposing liberation theology, firm in the belief that it is the Gospel, and not ideology, that brings true liberty. As cardinal, Pope Francis reportedly administered well, and did much himself, rarely seeing the need for a secretary or outside help.

As Pope, his approach to appointments will be crucial. Francis is said to have “an eye for talent,” and, like Benedict, he also listens and consults.

Msgr. Fazio believes the Pope’s “austerity and a sense of personal practicality” will impact his probable approach to reform. But he adds: “We should not expect abrupt signs, but a practical continuity, solving problems and putting in order, step by step, those things that need to be sorted, while promoting those that need to be promoted.”

“Certainly,” Msgr. Fazio continued, “his vision, coming from outside the Curia, will serve to introduce a new atmosphere to those working in the Vatican.”


New Secretary of State

The key position that needs to be urgently filled is that of secretary of state, who is responsible for overseeing the running of the Curia and the diplomatic service. The outgoing secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was regarded as an outsider — a theologian rather than a diplomat, who usually fills the role.

Pope Francis is most likely, therefore, to revert to choosing a diplomat. Several names are being mentioned, including Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a respected former deputy “foreign minister” at the Vatican, who now serves as the papal nuncio to Venezuela.

But others are suggesting Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former deputy governor of the Vatican who tried to root out internal corruption under Benedict, but who appeared to be pushed out by those who resented his efforts, something the Vatican strenuously denied. In 2011, Archbishop Viganò was sent to be apostolic nuncio to the United States, despite pleas to remain in the Vatican in order to root out malpractices.

Other names include Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the commission governing the Vatican city state, and Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples — both respected diplomats with Curial experience at the highest levels.

Another important Vatican figure Pope Francis may change is that of prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Currently, it is headed by a friend of Benedict's, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller. But Pope Francis may wish to have someone of similar mind to himself in such a pivotal position. Similarly, many believe he will change the priest in charge of papal liturgies — currently Msgr. Guido Marini — and replace him with someone who favors his own approach to worship.

In El Jesuita, the Pope explains that he is not a great traveler (his first visit abroad wasn’t until 1970, to Colombia), and he describes himself as a casalingo — an Italian word best described as “homebody” in English. For these reasons, sources say Pope Francis will travel less than his predecessors, although he already planning on visiting Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in July and will most probably visit Argentina in December.

In terms of external issues, Pope Francis is unlikely to face any issues different from those his predecessors did, but there will be a change of emphasis.

Father Robert Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, foresees “a subtle shift away from the issues that preoccupy Europe, which is not to say renunciation, but a shift toward other issues that occupy the Americas and the developing world.”

Francis is hard to pigeonhole as a “conservative” or “liberal” when it comes to politics or economics, partly because he has written so little compared to his predecessors. He comes from a country that is “corporatist, mercantilist and almost fascist,” Father Sirico says, but although he feels the Pope will veer towards supporting the welfare state, he also has a “rich understanding of the importance of work and paying one’s bills.”

Moreover, Father Sirico notes that his fierce opposition to liberation theology and yet his closeness to the poor “tells you that there’s a different way of doing the Gospel than this movement that swept through Latin America.” In sum, Father Sirico, whose institute has close links with Argentina, believes Pope Francis takes a similar approach to such technical questions as he does to the liturgy: “He’s not really concerned with the details.”


What to Expect

But the Holy Father is expected to uphold all the core Church teachings, as any other pope would. Unlike some of his fellow Jesuits, Jorge Bergoglio was not known to be a dissenter from Church teaching. Indeed, many of his associates are said to be concerned that he might set about reforming the Ignatian order. “If he accomplishes cleaning up the Curia and reforming the Jesuits, he will have achieved a great deal,” said Father Sirico. “I’m assured by people who know him that he will do it.”

As well as not tampering with the Church’s teaching on faith and morals, Francis is also very unlikely to change the Latin Church’s celibacy tradition.

But given his recent remarks, he will probably step up Vatican’s initiatives in interreligious dialogue and ecumenism, particularly with Islam, Judaism and the Orthodox Church.

He will also underline the importance of safeguarding creation and promoting peace and continue Benedict XVI’s efforts to increase leadership roles for women in the Vatican (he has already praised the role of women in the Church several times).

But, so far, he hasn’t addressed abortion, same-sex “marriage” and euthanasia, despite speaking out forcefully on these issues in Argentina. Nor has he mentioned threats to religious freedom. A possible reason can be found in El Jesuita, where he recalls that Benedict XVI chose not to criticize the Spanish government’s anti-Church policies when he visited in 2006, preferring to focus on the positive, unifying issues both held in common.

Like his predecessor, he wishes to avoid portraying the faith as a series of prohibitions and instead wants to draw attention to the wider and more positive picture.

The Christian life, he says, is a treasure, whose implications go “much further than mere sexual questions” and focus should be on these. “We overlook a very rich catechesis, with the mysteries of the faith, the Creed, and we end up concentrating on whether or not to participate in a demonstration against a draft law in favor of the use of condoms,” he has said.

Such an approach already appears to be bearing fruit. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist who once participated in the militant activities of the communist group National Liberation Command, came to Rome for Pope Francis’ inauguration on March 19. But she did so reluctantly, sources tell the Register, and really did not wish to have a meeting with the Holy Father. Although the Brazilian government has generally good relations with the Church, Rousseff and her ministers differ with the Church on issues such as same-sex “marriage” and abortion.

But sources who attended the meeting between the two leaders say Rousseff was “moved to tears” when the Pope praised her for her concern for the poor and in particular her decision to break off a scheduled trip to meet victims of a nightclub fire in southern Brazil that killed more than 230 people in January.

“She was very moved,” a Vatican official said. “He thanked her for all she had done for the poor and said he was going to visit Brazil and visit the national shrine in Aparecida.”


Impressive Start

It remains to be seen how the Holy Father will keep detractors onside when these issues have to be raised, but, for now, he has made an impressive start.

Already, a pontificate is emerging very much in “spiritual continuity” with past popes, but also with a distinctive, reforming style, aimed at winning hearts and minds not for himself, but for Christ.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.