Ten years ago, Pope Francis came out donned as a Pope from the Loggia delle Benedizioni of the Vatican Apostolic Palace for the first time. He had refused the red mozzetta, had asked to be blessed by the people, and immediately began building his pontificate, which was, in reality, a work of visible breach with the past.
Pope Francis did not change the substance of things. Still, he worked to change the image, not considering that a change of appearance, when dealing with history, symbols, and doctrine, also becomes a change in substance—or perhaps, knowing it to the point of wanting to make a clean break from the past.
Thus, after refusing the red mozzetta because it was probably considered a legacy of the past, Pope Francis began the work of constant presence:
• The visit to Santa Maria Maggiore.
• The occasion with a photographer following him to the residence where he had been before the conclave to show himself pay.
• The Mass in the parish of Sant’Anna on his first Sunday as Pope (a circumstance that, actually, has not been repeated in the pontificate).
And then, the choice for the silver cross, the desire to no longer live in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, and a pauperistic style that wanted to make a clean break with the past.
In those choices, many symbols and stories were set aside, but this was done for no reason other than the need to look ahead, not to remain prisoners of the past. Pope Francis presented himself at the General Congregations on March 9 with a text entirely centered on the missionary need of the Church, which publication he then authorized. From the beginning, he said he was following the government mandate of the cardinals, starting with the reform of the Curia.
Seen in hindsight, the first hectic days of that pontificate, full of novelties, already gave us a glimpse of what Pope Francis would be like. The initial risk was that of reading too much from choices that arose more from the personal common sense of the Pope than from a genuine desire to break. The danger today is instead that of not looking at the signs of discontinuity wanted by Pope Francis and how these signs of discontinuity can impact the next pontificate.
There are, first of all, signs of formal discontinuity. The renunciation of the red mozzetta is the first in a series of gestures of Vatican ceremonial language progressively abandoned by Pope Francis.
They seem like small things, but they are not. The ceremony says who and what the Church is. If, for example, the mozzetta is renounced, one also sacrifices that symbolism which the Church had taken from the empire but had then reinterpreted to make the Pope a servant of the servants of God. The Pope takes on the insignia of the kingdom, but the empire of Christ is at the service of man. And if there is no insignia, what will be the authority instead? And how can it be defined?
Pope Francis has also changed the ceremonial for visits by divorced and remarried heads of state, allowing spouses to be present from the beginning of the exchange of gifts and not simply at the moment of the photo—a choice appropriate to the times, but which loses a sense of catechesis and evangelization.
Then, there are government discontinuities. Pope Francis likes to appear synodal, but he makes all the decisions himself. There are formal and informal consultations, but the latter matters increasingly more to Pope Francis. For example, the Pope wanted to establish a recently renewed Council of Cardinals, which was supposed to assist him in reforming the Curia. In reality, most of the modifications of the Curia, which were then incorporated into the new constitution, came before the decisions of the Council and sometimes even before their meetings.
On the one hand, Pope Francis has promoted the idea of a Church in a state of permanent synod. But, on the other hand, the two synods on the family of 2014 and 2015 concluded with Amoris Laetitia, an apostolic exhortation that opened, rather than closed, the debate.
On the other hand, the extraordinary synod for the Pan-Amazon Region in 2019 ended with the Querida Amazonia, a post-synodal exhortation which, in practice, asked for continued discussions, while at the local level, the pressure was being applied for substantial innovations also on the theme of the priesthood.
If all discussions remain open, however, then there is no authority other than the central one to make decisions without contestation. The Pope opens all the processes, but then he is always the one to decide, sometimes even in a brutal way. Thus, the perceived synodality cannot be compared to the actual situation. There is an open debate, and there is a decision-maker who goes beyond the discussion.
Then, there are the communication discontinuities. Pope Francis does his communication alone and decides who to give the interviews to. No filters exist, but that doesn’t mean everything isn’t filtered. The point is that Pope Francis speaks often, and everyone is forced to follow. Otherwise, they are bound to be considered opponents. A new polarization has been created, different from the previous ones. It is a polarization that divides those perceived as pro-Pope from those perceived as against the Pope.
In ten years, the doctrine has perhaps not changed, but the approach to the doctrine has changed, and it is said that this will not have positive consequences. There is a new pragmatism, which is not bound by universal principles and appears simply as a reading of reality.
What Church will Pope Francis hand over to his successor? A Church that today is divided in debates and seems disconnected from the reality of the people. A Church that needs to evangelize but is faced with the problem of having given up the task of evangelizing and of having become too attentive to public opinion. A Church that is called by the Pope to evangelize but which seems to struggle to find new vocabularies.
After all, many of the debates of the last ten years are debates that had already been overcome mainly after the 1970s. It is as if, looking forward, the Church had gone backward, effectively setting aside almost forty years of history. And Pope Francis, with his choices, shows in some cases that he wants to remedy what he considers the damage done in these forty years. He also does it with symbolic gestures, such as the creation of so-called “remediation cardinals,” who do not have the right to vote but show the Pope’s preference for an interpretation of certain situations.
Because Pope Francis, in the end, knows the power of symbols. It is just that the symbolism of Pope Francis is different, more secular, more pragmatic, and more Latin American, and this interpretation has not yet made inroads into public opinion. Yet, it seems crucial to understand this pontificate.