Pope Francis particularly loves personal contact with people. And this is not only when he is in the general audience in the square but also, in general, when he has to enter into more demanding conversations. Instead of institutional contacts, he prefers personal contacts. Instead of reports from the Secretariat of State, he likes the suggestions of ordinary people.
It is a characteristic trait of his personality found in various speeches. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized that “it is from the periphery that the center is best seen,” a statement that could have a double meaning.
The first was that the problems of the Church could not be understood by being in the heart of the government of the Church and that for this reason, one had instead to be in the peripheries to see the concrete problems. The second meaning was that he, a Pope who had come from afar, had been able to understand the issues in the Church.
It was, in short, a government declaration disguised as a pastoral affirmation. And this, too, is a characteristic of Pope Francis, who is a Pope who governs, and who is always keen to clarify that his government is “pastoral”. It is clear in the 49 motu propri, the many rescripta ex audientia sanctissimi, the reform of the Curia, the reform of the matrimonial process, not to mention other reforms that Pope Francis has inherited and completed, such as the reform of the Vatican Code or the financial reform.
You don’t understand Pope Francis if you don’t understand that the Pope just places his trust in very small trusted circles of people who are constantly changing. He becomes suspicious if he is presented with an institutional approach to the issues. If a Vatican official points out something to him and maybe draws up a report, he doesn’t necessarily endorse it. But if a nun that the Pope trusts provides the same answer, he will surely follow that nun.
Thus, Pope Francis has an agenda of official meetings, which are held in the Apostolic Palace in the morning, and then a schedule of unofficial meetings, which do not even pass through the Prefecture of the Papal Household or the Pope’s secretaries but are managed directly by him. Of these meetings, little is known officially, except that someone who participates makes it known that they have had the meeting. It is the informal governance of Pope Francis, who uses everyone as a source of information, but without ever taking a clear-cut position.
From this point of view, some positions of Pope Francis become clearer. For example, the position on the war in Ukraine seemed more influenced by the Pope’s conversations than by what he was told officially by the Secretariat of State or by the bishops in Ukraine, from the Latin and Greek-Catholic rites.
The turning point in the Pope’s position on the ongoing war occurred only after a personal meeting with His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, father and head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. After he came to Rome for a week in early November, the Pope began to take a more clear-cut position on the war, to the point of being moved during the prayer for Ukraine in front of the statue of the Madonna in Piazza di Spagna last 8 December.
The change of position did not come without twists and turns. The Pope does not want to put any relationship in crisis but to maintain good relations with everyone. Therefore he jumped through hoops to reconcile closeness to the Ukrainian people with the affirmation that “the cruelest acts of war are not the work of the Russian ethnic groups, but of Chechens and Buryats.” A statement which, in trying to save relations with Russia, instead had the effect of angering Ukrainians, Russians, Buryats, and Chechens alike.
Other decisions of Pope Francis are logically inexplicable if they are not traced back to a personal decision coming from an individual request. For example, the Vatican process of managing the funds of the Secretariat of State originated from a complaint by Gianfranco Mammì, director general of the Institute for Works of Religion, whom Pope Francis holds in high regard.
But even the decision to remove the management of funds from the Secretariat of State had a personal note which could not fail to have been suggested and implemented: the Pope, in fact, explicitly asked to transfer money out of the Centurion fund, a unique point in a decision that should be more generic and not concern only with one of the various funds of the Secretariat of State, as if it were a specific punishment.
Pope Francis does not like having a papal court and is afraid that the courtiers only want to supress or embarrass him. However, the Vatican is a small world, there are various intersecting interests, but certainly, few are interested in killing the king because he is the one who guarantees the goods. Instead, the institution avoids attaching any excessive weight to consultations with individuals, thus protecting the Pope.
The Francis paradox also resides here. He tried to avoid having gatekeepers deciding access to him, but in doing so, he allowed a few people to become highly influential. And even if these people are interchangeable in the eyes of the Pope, the risk remains that they can direct everything in the wrong way when they are close.
Thus, the Pope of the peripheries finds himself not understanding the center. And the risk is that, in this lack of understanding, you dismantle all the work done previously, even the very good one, without replacing it. After all, proximity also leads to the perpetuation of certain relationships. These relationships are, yes, outside the Curia. But they have an influence on the Pope that cannot be underestimated.