Pope Francis: Agent of Change
On March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony in Rome for the first time, he was dressed in simple white robes. He smiled warmly and waved to the cheering, ecstatic multitude, speaking in Italian, “Brothers and sisters, good evening! You know that it was the conclave’s duty to give Rome a new bishop. My brother cardinals appear to have gone almost to the ends of the earth to find one, but here we are.” The intrinsic dignity and humility of his presence and words swept the crowd and millions watching around the world at that moment. In the months since then, his life style, ideas , public statements and actions have been a distinct change from his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.
Francis did not choose to live in the palatial palace apartments set aside for the pope at the Vatican. His home is nearby in Santa Marta in a small bare room with a table, chairs and one painting on the wall. As a Jesuit priest, he follows the rules and customs of his order within simple surroundings as he did when he was a bishop and cardinal in Argentina. He often walks to his destinations rather than ride in the formal limousine at his disposal. When he is greeted by crowds throwing gifts, he catches them and gives a thumbs up. He stops for photos with students. He tweets. He calls strangers on the phone. He is popular among Italian parish priests throughout Italy. Attendance at Sunday Mass had fallen to below 30 percent and parishes are happy with a pope who relates and talks to believers and non-believers. When he traveled to South America, he rode in an open car through the streets rather than the square, glassed- in vehicle known as ‘the pope mobile‘. More than a million excited men, women and children greeted him on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. He is their pope — the first from Latin America.
Since his election, Francis has initiated measures to reform the Roman Catholic Church, after years of criticism for the way it mishandled sexual abuse scandals involving clergy world wide, as well as more recent scandals and allegations of financial corruption and mismanagement within the Vatican itself. It was reported on October 2, 2013 that the pope had hand- picked and appointed a group of eight cardinals to make changes in the 2000 year-old institution. They came from Australia, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy and the United States. His mission is to overhaul the complex and powerful Vatican bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. He said he has drawn this goal from the conclave of cardinals who elected him. In an interview published in a Jesuit journal, Francis said the Curia should be like a “quartermaster’s office” in the army because it was meant to manage “the services that serve the Holy See”. He defined the problem as the Curia having a “Vatican-centric view that neglects the world around us.” He called the eight cardinals “ not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings. This is the beginning of a church with an organization that is not just top down but also horizontal.”
Five days after his first interview was made public, he was interviewed by Eugenio Scalfari, 89, the founder and editor of Italy’s largest circulation daily newspaper, La Repubblica. It took place after the pope had a call placed to Scalfari who said he was stunned to hear the voice on the other end of the line saying, “Hello, this is Pope Francis.” He answered, “Hello Your Holiness. I am shocked. I did not expect you to call me.” The conversation continued, “Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary. I can’t do Wednesday or Monday. Would Tuesday suit you?” Scalfari: “That’s fine.” Francis: “The time is a little awkward. Three in the afternoon. Is that okay?” Scalfari: Your Holiness, the time is fine.” pause while he thinks how to end the call… “Can I embrace you by phone?” Francis: “Of course, a hug from me too. Then we will do it in person. Goodbye.” La Repubblica, founded in l976, reflects the intellectual and financial elite of Italy. The meeting would take place in the pope’s small room with the table and chairs. The subjects areas they covered would be broad and fascinating.
Scalfari, an atheist, at one point asked if the pope was trying to convert him. Francis replied, “Convert you? Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. You have to meet people and listen to them. …This is important to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas.” When discussing world problems, Francis was very clear, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other. And the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present.” This was a sharp contrast with Benedict XVI who had called secularism and relativism the greatest evils the world faced.
When Scalfari asked questions about narcissism, the Pope was very forceful in his responses. “I don’t like the word narcissism. It indicates an excessive love for oneself and this is not good. …The real trouble is that those most affected by this – which is actually a kind of mental disorder — are people who have a lot of power. Often bosses are narcissists.” He developed the theme further, “You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” He referred to the Vatican-centric view as one he did not share. “I’ll do everything I can to change it. The Church should go back to being the community of God’s people and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.”
On October 5, it was announced that, after a three day meeting, the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of eight
cardinals planned to redact “a new constitution with significant new aspects” to regulate the
Curia. Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that the intent was
to place the Curia at the service of the universal church, “in terms of subsidiarily, rather than
the exercise of centralized power.”
Pope Francis has been compared to John XXIII who rose from humble peasant origins
as a barefoot boy in the Northern Italian mountains to become pope from 1958 to 1963. He
convened The Vatican II Council in 1963 that made major changes in the doctrine, theology
and practice of the Catholic Church. His ecumenical direction led to the lifting of the false
charge of “deicide” that had plagued generations of Jews throughout the world for almost 2000
years. Many Italians who have a portrait of John XXIII on their walls evoke his memory when
they speak of Francis.
When Eugenio Scalfari completed his interview with the pope, he said, “Your Holiness,
you are certainly a person of great faith, touched by grace, animated by the desire to revive a
pastoral, missionary church that is renewed and not temporal. But from the way you talk and
from what I understand, you are and will be a revolutionary pope. Half Jesuit, half a man of
Francis of Assisi, a combination that perhaps has never been seen before.” They embraced,
shook hands and the pope accompanied him to the door. Francis made a final comment about
future talks together, “We will also discuss the role of women in the Church. Remember that
the Church — la chiesa– is feminine.” Scalfari closed his article on the interview, “ If the
Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change.”