One year ago, March 13, Pope Francis won over the world with his «buonasera» and shook up the Church with the idea that a revolution was about to come. One year after, how much of this expected revolution has been carried out? Has the Roman Curia really changed? And is it possible to describe what is Pope Francis’ vision of the Church? Let’s focus on four points of this first year of pontificate, following the analysis written in this blog in the course of the year.
Pope Francis and the people
When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio loved to spend time among the people. He was beloved in the “villas miseria”, the slums of Buenos Aires he often visited. He was appreciated by the people because, during protests at the time of the economic crisis, he came out to talk to them. He was feared by the political power because of his homilies. Jorge Mario Bergoglio made of his being “callejero de la fé” (an urban grassroots advocate of the faith) the center of his pastoral activity. Once elected Pope, he immediately wanted to show his closeness to the people. He asked several times for all to pray for him. He spent hours greeting ill people at the end of the general audiences. His simple, almost simplistic, oratory is disarming and impacting. This is what the cardinals were calling for at the General Congregation, i.e. the pre-conclave meetings: a change of narrative of the Catholic Church, and a new missionary push. In a world where projecting the right image is so important, a good rapport with the people is crucial. On this basis, Pope Francis has built a tremendous popular and media consensus. However, he has also given rise to many expectations yet to be fulfilled.
Pope Francis and the local Churches
Pope Francis considers his being a bishop and a priest to be at the core of his activity. Since the very beginning, he wanted to call himself “bishop of Rome”, rather than Pope. And he has always stressed that he wants bishops and priests who are shepherds, who smell like the sheep they tend to. These shepherds will be entrusted by the Pope with the Keys of the Kingdom.
The image of Roman Curia was stained by scandals when the conclave began. Often, the scandals were the outcome of well-managed media campaigns, as the famous Vatileaks (which put the finger in the wound of the problems without really dissecting them).
There were some at the general congregations who were unhappy with some aspects of the previous papacy. Every bishop or nuncio visiting Rome wanted to have a private meeting with the Pope. Benedict XVI gave his collaborators a hard and fast rule: you can schedule a personal meeting only if it is really important and if a lot of personal attention is needed. Otherwise, better to report in writing. It was a democratic method, which avoided any favoritism. However, bishops in Rome for ad limina visits felt ostracized when they did not managed to have a personal audience with the Pope. The diplomats and the cardinals who were not granted a personal appointment often complained as well.
The complaints were mostly against the secretary Georg Gaenswein and the Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, because of the way they managed the Pope’s schedule and relations. Not by chance, both Bertone and Gaenswein had been the main targets of Vatileaks, and had been the only ones that Benedict XVI publicly defended.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio shared the local Churches concerns, in part as a result of personal experience. In his capacity of archbishop of Buenos Aires and primate of the Church in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio proposed many priests as bishops, but he got several ‘no’ from Rome. Cardinal Bergoglio also had to put up a fight to appoint his friend Victor Fernandez as Rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires, overcoming the Congregation for Catholic Education objecting to the appointment. Bergoglio raised these issues during the general congregations, asking for more autonomy and weight for the local Churches.
Now, the Pope is thinking about giving more decision-making power to bishops. From the interview the Pope granted to “La Civiltà Cattolica” emerged the notion of a possible “dismantling” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And Cardinal Kasper’s address at the consistory for the family highlighted the idea of entrusting to some local priests (experienced shepherds) the responsibility of deciding on annulments. Pope Francis has also let it confidentially be known that, if necessary, Canon law itself may be changed.
In the meantime, local Churches are the most engaged in the notion of a reform of the Curia. The Council of Eight cardinals is composed of people coming from the dioceses of the world, with the sole exception of Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Governorate of Vatican City State. Until now, discussions on the reform of the Curia has mostly been with Bishops’ conferences. Members of the Roman Curia, as well as experts in ecclesiastical affairs, have been involved in the consultations, but only on their personal capacities.
Meanwhile, the local Churches are trying to be attentive to the Pope’s perspectives, while keeping their own approaches and autonomy. The German Bishops’ Conference elected as its president card. Reinhard Marx, the rising star of Pope Francis pontificate. On the other hand, the Italian Bishops’ Conference is going through a tough period: linked to the Pope, who is the primate of the Church of Italy, the Italian bishops want the Pope to continue to exercise the role of leader and guide. In the past, the pope would elect the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. But now, Francis wants its bishops to decide by themselves. It is possible there will be a show down in May, when the bishops of Italy will gather in their annual general assembly. Pope Francis will personal give the initial address to bishops, a premiére. The president of the Italian Bishops Conference Angelo Bagnasco is now marginalized.
Pope Francis and the reform of the Curia
That of the reform of the Roman Curia is one of the greatest expectations raised by the election of Pope Francis. He himself admitted that he does not have his own plan of government. Rather, he is just following the guidelines of the General Congregations. The discussion in the General Congregations brought the idea that the Curia had to be streamlined. But how?
Pope Francis appointed a group of eight cardinal-consultants, and then put everything under review: he established a pontifical commission for the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), he then established another pontifical commission for the financial structure of the Holy See. After three meetings of the Council of Cardinals, he understood that a reform needs a project, and that a project requires a long journey. So, it seems, he decided instead to carry on the reform with a series of quick runs. He established a Secretary for the Economy. In the beginning Pope Francis just appointed its prefect (Cardinal George Pell), then he appointed a Secretary Prelate (his personal Secretary, Alfred Xuereb, who is also the Pope’s delegate for the two pontifical commissions) and finally he appointed the 15 members of the Council for the Economy.
The new dicastery still lacks its statues, and it is still not known where it will be inserted within the Roman Curia. This is a secondary issue for Pope Francis. It is worth noting that the chirograph that established the Council of Eight Cardinals has been published only shortly before the cardinals first met in the Vatican. Pope Francis, it seems, thinks that the institutionalization can come after.
According to Cardinal Julian Herranz, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the reform «will be quick and will be deep.» This would indicate that Canon Law experts will be consulted only after the fact, in order to give a juridical shape to a new status quo.
In the meantime, the Vatican hired several international companies as external consultants, which are explaining what everybody in the Vatican already knows, i.e. that the elephantine Vatican machine needs to be streamlined.
Pope Francis did not, however, fired anyone in order to build up a new Vatican ruling class and develop a new project of Curia. He preferred opting for a general freeze on hiring and promotions. The risk is that the Vatican machine would be completely dismantled, instead of it being fix to make it effective in its relations with the world.
Pope Francis and the world
Pope Francis main diplomatic tool is prayer. This was clear from his very first speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. In that occasion, he did not addressed the “big themes” of the pontifical diplomacy, probably taking as a given that the line to follow is that developed by Benedict XVI and John Paul II before him. In all the personal meetings he has had with heads of State or government, Pope Francis has highlighted a mutual commitment for world peace, against human trafficking, and in favor of a culture of the encounter. Pope Francis leaves relations with the diplomats to his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a skilled diplomat himself. In his presentation speech to the ambassadors to the Holy See, Parolin explained his goal to engage in a path of dialogue based on personal acquaintance. That diplomacy is not the core of this pontificate is evident. According to several rumors, the diplomatic responsibilities of the Secretariat of State will be tasked to just one of the Secretariats that Pope Francis may be thinking to establish. General affairs (first section) would cease to exist, and its functions would fall to a “moderator curiae”, i.e. a coordinating office.
Some issues (even if complex) are noteworthy: the Pope is the Holy See, not the main representative of the Holy See. This is the reason why the Secretariat of State (i.e. the secretariat of the Pope) held both the tasks of general affairs and diplomacy: to underscore the identification of the Pope with the diplomatic activity of the Church. Will this eventual change lead to a weaker and less influential diplomacy? And how will papal nuncios and missionaries be supported if in the Holy See diplomacy would become just one of the many offices of the new Roman Curia? All of these concerns must be discussed.
Meanwhile, Pope Francis stresses the diplomatic strength of prayer. The vigil for peace in Syria held on September 7 was an extraordinary success. Pope Francis thus walks on the path of his predecessors, since the Popes have always been committed to peace. On the other hand, some questions may arise: how much did the impact of the vigil on public opinion stopped a U.S. military intervention in Syria? John Paul II’s charisma, his similar call for a day of prayer and fasting, were not sufficient to avoid the Second Gulf War… so, is the Church really heard in the international arena? Or has it become ever more marginalized?
The Pope is not a pop star
These are all critical issues, and would concern every modern pontificate, not just that of Francis. A missionary push is needed. The challenge is not to dilute the faith, but to rise up to the challenges of the world with a culture, with wisdom, and with a set identity. After one year of pontificate, Pope Francis has grabbed newspapers headlines, and he will perhaps be the first pope to win the Nobel Prize. It is worth noting that, for instance, “Time magazine” motivations to elect Pope Francis the person of the year were more the result of a political agenda and an ideological vision of Pope Francis’ actions than a precise analysis of what Pope Francis has been doing.
In fact, Pope Francis has proven to be firmly orthodox. He did not want a direct fight against the spirit of the world. But it is enough to read Evangelii Gaudium, his Apostolic exhortation, to understand that his positions on the ethics themes follow the Church’s tradition. And it suffices to read his daily morning homilies delivered at Domus Sanctae Marthae to understand that the Church’s tradition is alive in Pope Francis (he makes many references to Confession, to the hierarchical Church, to salvation and the Church).
Perhaps there has been a revolution of the Church’s image. It is yet to be seen how much of this revolution has been propitiated by the media, rather than generated by Pope Francis’ actions. Perhaps there is too much marketing, and not enough substance, around Pope Francis’ message. He is very aware that in the end he must watch out for the risk of simply becoming something akin to a pop star. This is the most difficult challenge Pope Francis will need to confront.