The last sentence of this penetrating volume by veteran Vatican reporter Marco Politi quotes Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio addressing his fellow cardinals just a few days before the conclave that elected him pope in March 2013: “I have the impression that Jesus has been shut up inside the church and that he is knocking because he wants to get out.”
They can’t say they weren’t warned!
As pope, Francis has certainly lived up to the expectations of both those who hope for change and those who fear it. As he affirmed in an October 2014 homily at the beatification of his Vatican II predecessor Paul VI: “God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts, and guiding us in unexpected ways.” (Cited in Robert Draper: “Will the Pope Change the Vatican? Or Will the Vatican Change the Pope?” National Geographic, August 2015.)
Where is Pope Francis intent on taking the Catholic Church? There is no better guide to that question than Politi. In a lengthy conversation at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, recorded at the time of the September 2015 papal visit to the United States (watch it at: www.carnegiecouncil.org), Politi observed that “This pope wants to reshape the papacy” and to advance a “program for revolution in the church.” But, as importantly, he doesn’t come with a set of doctrinal or ideological prescriptions to impose. Rather, his agenda is for a church that excludes no one from its works of mercy, a humble church that listens and “speaks to men and women as they are in contemporary society.” At the same time, in that overture he faces some formidable and entrenched resistance.
The 16 chapters of Politi’s book provide a richly detailed examination of the “Bergoglio difference” and its challenges, starting with his experience as head of a large cosmopolitan diocese on a non-European continent in which he immersed himself in the social conditions of the most marginalized. Humbly and courageously he truly lived the “preferential option for the poor” as a spiritual imperative. He would regularly visit the most crime-ridden violent shantytowns. He would say that the shepherds must “have the same smell as their sheep.” He would tell his priests: “The church is not meant to control people, but to accompany them where they live.”
Pope Benedict XVI must be credited with the unprecedented voluntary resignation that cleared the way for a first Jesuit pope taking a name after St. Francis of Assisi. This epochal decision proved to be a transformational moment that marked a departure from the trappings of papal power and doctrinal defensiveness. Bergoglio was not unknown to the cardinals, having placed second to cardinal Ratzinger in the previous conclave. By making him their overwhelming choice despite his age (78), they signalled change and, above all, a desire for a strong administrator to clean up the Vatican bureaucracy, riddled by curial clericalism and careerism, shaken by the “Vatileaks” revelations, the scandals of sexual abuse of minors, hierarchical coverups, and the dubious dealings of the Vatican bank.
The financial shenanigans, including money-laundering and other forms of corruption, are dealt with extensively in chapter 12. Elsewhere Politi reports on the new pope’s crackdown on episcopal extravagance and other misdeeds. In 2014 Francis directed papal authorities to take the unprecedented step of arresting and prosecuting the former Dominican Republic archbishop and nuncio on charges of sexual abuse and possession of child pornography. “In the Vatican, the shock was enormous.”
From the first there were, of course, those perturbed by the winds of reform and accountability upsetting the established order. Politi gives a blow-by-blow account of the continuing fallout. At the same time he also shows how effectively Pope Francis has disarmed his critics with his gift of plain speaking, his appeal for a “church of the poor,” his pastoral approach of being a servant and sinner not a “pontiff emperor.” As a genuine people person, he has ensured that he would not be isolated or cut off from ordinary concerns. The book is full of telling observations and anecdotes. For example, his favourite movie is the wonderful Babette’s Feast (1987) in which an exiled Parisian introduces dour Danish villagers to a banquet of delights that becomes a spiritual as well as sensory awakening. “Bergoglio believes in the joy of giving and in a faith as a life of happiness under the sign of the Gospel, not tormented by visions of God as policeman.”
That said, never mistake his personal warmth and humble simplicity for naiveté. Francis is fully aware of the challenges he is up against. He has shown steadfast determination in making reform appointments, restructuring the Curia and other Vatican offices, and in advancing consultative conciliarism within the church through the synod of bishops. As Politi observes: “Francis is more than a charismatic figure; he is a political actor.”
The pope knows that some conservatives and traditionalists will oppose, whether through private or public mutterings, his outreach to the world that encourages respectful dialogue with others including non-believers in the search for truth — understood as a relationship involving personal conscience, not as an absolute exclusive possession.
Within the church family, Francis has promoted a larger role for women, though stopping well short of the controversial question of women’s ordination. Nonetheless, given the shortage of priests and vocations, change is happening at the parish level in parts of Europe. Politi devotes a chapter to “hidden women priests” — women who are leading parish communities, performing the Liturgy of the Word and other functions except for the consecration of the host. “To face up fully to the role of women in the church constitutes a ford in the stream that the Bergoglio pontificate must cross. The ecclesiastical structure built around the dominance of the male clergy is gradually breaking apart.”
An important factor in appreciating Pope Francis’ open-minded outlook is his own strong self-critique based on his experience in Argentina. He has made frank admissions that as the superior of the Jesuits he was authoritarian and made many mistakes. Politi deals extensively with the period of the Videla military dictatorship during which some activist priests were the targets of violent repression. Unlike some in the Argentine hierarchy, Bergoglio was never complicit with the regime. On the contrary, there is much evidence of how he protected and saved many. Later he was president of the Argentine Episcopal Conference when it issued a 2006 declaration of repentance for the church’s failings during that dark time. It’s true that Bergoglio did not share the radical political analysis of some “liberation theology.” (On a personal note, I visited Argentina in 1977, at the height of the “dirty war,” while doing doctoral research on this Latin American theological movement.) Nevertheless, the spirit of liberation theology, especially its option for the poor, can be seen in the profound socio-economic and environmental critiques that he has delivered as pope.
Francis has a determined program to bring about change. “His announcements are aimed at the whole church, using the full array of modern media channels, and he sets out precise objectives so as to make it harder for the tentacles of curial routine and bureaucratic inertia to tie him down. . . . Francis’s revolution has a name: the missionary transformation of the church.” That means abandoning a sclerotic clericalism, consulting widely, involving the laity, and fully embracing the challenges of the present rather than being trapped in a reactionary posture.
As much as Francis has attracted worldwide admiration, he has made enemies within. “The ill will in the corridors of the Roman Curia began on the evening of the election. . . . Bergoglio upset too many conventional expectations. . . . Francis’s language is irritating and scary to the ultratradtionalist sectors of the curia. . . . He unsettles them deeply because rather than stay within the bounds of pious exhortation, he points in direct language to where the rot is.” There has been a growing conservative Catholic backlash including on social media. One website accused him of “populism, pauperism, and demagogy.”
The pope who welcomes a God of surprises is not welcomed by insiders who do not wish him well because he threatens their certitudes and positions. “The most cunning enemies of Francis’ reform policies are nestled in the Vatican undergrowth among those accustomed to traffic with wheeler-dealers of various kinds.” Politi calls some of them “rapacious wolves.” He quotes Cardinal Roger Etchegaray: “I pray for the pope because one of these days, when the honeymoon is over and decision time arrives, they’ll try to back him up against the wall.” Politi observes that sectors of the Italian episcopate aligned with the political right have been “left dazed” by the pope’s program of reform that is opening windows of change within the church in order to respond to the lived experience of its members.
So far Francis has not been deterred from an approach that seeks pastoral solutions over doctrinal rigidity. This is apparent in the ongoing discussion of sensitive matters pertaining to the family and sexual morality, or on the vexed question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The pope is not discarding fundamental church teachings. He is, through the deliberations of synods of bishops and the circulation of questionnaires to the laity, opening up a space for faithful reflection and debate on the pastoral responses appropriate to the conditions of today.
This is very much a pope who wants to bring the church to the people, not drive people away. That is what it means to proclaim the “joy of the gospel” and the abundance of God’s mercy.
Politi portrays Francis as a man of deep holiness and prayer who realizes that he may not have a long time and is determined to make the most of it. With Benedict XVI’s resignation the tradition of the “papacy for life” has been broken. This is therefore a critical moment in the life of the church. As Politi concludes:
If he (Francis) succeeds in transforming the Synod of Bishops into a permanent instrument of coparticipation in papal government, in making them into little councils that assist the church to chart its course on the ocean of modernity — involving the faithful, laymen, and laywomen — the revolution of Jorge Mario Bergoglio will become irreversible. “I only ask the Lord,” the pope confided to an Argentine friend, as the third year of his pontificate loomed, “that this change which I am pursuing for the sake of the church, at great personal cost, will endure, and not be like a light that suddenly goes out.”
*For further reading, Pope Francis is the subject of three other notable books published in recent months: Robert Draper, Pope Francis and the New Vatican; Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism (revised paperback edition); Gianluigi Nuzzi, Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’s Secret Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican. And, not least, the pope himself is the author in the book-length interview The Name of God is Mercy published on Jan. 12, 2016.