On Thursday Pope Francis will have completed a year as Bishop of Rome, a year in which he has begun to transform the Church. But be in no doubt, argues our Rome correspondent, of just how wide and how deep go his aims for change
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared in the white papal cassock on the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica on 13 March 2013, few people – if anyone – could have predicted how the then 76-year-old Jesuit would dramatically re-energise the Catholic Church over the next 12 months.
He had been profiled as a moderately conservative archbishop from Argentina, renowned for his simple lifestyle and pastoral affection for the poor. Perhaps the only clue of his intention radically to reform the papacy and the Church, though barely understood at the time, was his bold and unprecedented decision to name himself after St Francis of Assisi.
People in the rainy square below fell silent and wept with joy as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, as he explicitly described himself, bowed his head and asked them to pray over him. “Before the bishop blesses his people, I ask you to pray to the Lord so that he will bless me. Let us make this prayer in silence – your prayer over me,” he said.
That evening Francis declared that he was launching the Church of Rome, “which presides in charity over all the other Churches”, on new journey. He said: “We take up this journey – bishop and people.”
It would be months before most Catholics, especially the new Pope’s fellow priests and bishops, would begin to understand the profound significance of those words. “Journey” is the central programme of his pontificate – a Church in synodos (“walking together”), shedding its inward-looking preoccupations and learning to be permanently in mission to the “peripheries”, to everyone and everything.
Publicly, almost everyone is singing Hosannas for Papa Francesco. But, privately, there are significant sectors of the Church – especially among some Curia officials, diocesan bishops, younger priests and seminarians – that are not exactly overjoyed with the “revolution” he is trying to enflame among the pilgrim People of God.
The cardinals had given the new Pope a mandate to reform the Roman Curia and to bring order to a badly mismanaged Vatican City. But they could hardly have known that he would also start reforming the very institution of the papacy. His refusal to live in the Apostolic Palace remains, to this day, the most important decision in this regard. It was the move that set off the initial alarm bells for those resistant to change.
Although Paul VI had largely dismantled the old papal court after the Second Vatican Council, much of the mentality and protocol still bear the unmistakeable hallmarks of what was essentially a seventeenth-century monarchy. By moving to the Domus Sanctae Marthae to live with some 50 other priests and a regular stream of visiting quests, the Jesuit Pope freed himself from the gatekeepers and schedule-makers who would try to shield him from hoi polloi and took a step to demythologise further the papacy.
However, the wider effect of his change of residence has been the beginning of a shift of mentality and an attempt to eradicate a clericalist ethos that has long encapsulated Rome and has surfaced more and more throughout the rest of the Church over the past decade or so.
A symbol of those most adversely affected is Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the man who continues to serve as private secretary and housemate to Benedict XVI. As prefect of the Papal Household, a job Benedict gave him just before resigning, he finds himself heading a vacant palace that Francis uses only on a part-time basis for formal ceremonies and audiences. The German prelate looks increasingly lost and gloomy in the current pontificate, finding enough time on his hands to give daily interviews to emphasise how Francis is merely continuing what Benedict began, but only in a different manner and style.
That is not quite exact. Pope Francis took the unprecedented step, just one month into his pontificate, to establish of a group of eight cardinals – now known as the C8 – to help him govern the Universal Church and reform the Curia. This is not a mere stylistic change. It was the first step to what increasingly appears to be the Pope’s goal radically to reform the very governing structure of the Church by sharply curtailing centralisation and breathing new life into episcopal collegiality, the doctrine that the world’s bishops share authority over the entire Church with the Bishop of Rome.
Collegiality was expected to take shape after Vatican II, but successive popes and Curial forces made sure it remained the Council’s most significant unfinished business.
Pope Francis’ decision to choose his eight cardinal-advisers from the world’s five continents (only two Europeans; just one from Italy) is only the beginning of the much-desired revival of real collegiality. The coordinator of the C8, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, has been the Pope’s right-hand man throughout. In many ways he is playing the key support role (some might say vice Pope) that his fellow Salesian and the former Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, fulfilled for Benedict.
Francis began consulting regularly with Cardinal Rodríguez, and others on the C8, long before he held his first group meeting with the advisory council last October. By the time they convened, he had already set up a number of papal committees and commissions, and hired outside companies, to audit and review the financial and administrative entities of the Holy See – including the infamous “Vatican Bank”.
The recent establishment of the new Secretariat for the Economy is also much more than just a difference in style from the previous pontificate. In fact, it is the biggest structural change to the Roman Curia in nearly half a century. Francis has given the new ministry “oversight for the administrative [emphasis added] and financial structures and activities” in all sectors of the Vatican and the Holy See.
As the secretariat’s prefect he has chosen Australian Cardinal George Pell, a C8 member with a reputation for being hard-nosed and undeterred in achieving his goals. The cardinal has been a fierce critic of the Vatican’s mismanagement and will not allow anyone, including the powerful Italian cliques, to stop him from wielding his axe and applying his broom.
But, ironically, Pope Francis has shown only a few signs to date that the C8 will be the main body to help him govern the worldwide Church. Instead, he seems to want to entrust that task to the Synod of Bishops, a body Paul VI established in 1965. This permanent structure is de jure separate from the Roman Curia, but over the past four decades it has de facto fallen prey to the Curia’s control. Francis gave a clear sign of his intention to the change that when he announced the names of his new cardinals in January.
The Pope listed the synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, before that of the prefect of the once-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller. The message was unambiguous – the CDF is to be at the service of the College of Bishops, not its doctrinal minder.
Pope Francis has doubled the office space of the synod secretariat and is expected to add more people to its staff. He is currently working closely with Cardinal Baldisseri to reform its procedures to make it more dynamic. He has also indicated, in interviews, that he wants the synod to be a permanent consultative body, even between its general assemblies, which have been taking place only once every two or three years.
The type of synodality that Francis is aiming for is one that includes all the baptised People of God. Though the members of the synod are strictly bishops, he wants the pastors to consult with and listen to their priests and people. The Pope last October launched a fresh and creative synodal process to look at issues regarding marriage and the family.
Taking a sort of first stab at implementing a new path forward, this new process includes the unprecedented questionnaire that was meant to canvas Catholics at local and parish levels, and involves holding two general assemblies over as many years. The first assembly is to review the results of the survey and then, after a year of in-depth study and wide-ranging discussions, the other will hammer out new pastoral guidelines.
Ideally, this should imitate the process followed during the four sessions of the Second Vatican Council between 1962-1965. Like then, the real work will need to take place in the preparatory stage and then in the intervening space between the yearly synod gatherings.
Perhaps even more pointedly, Pope Francis has used his first 12 months in office to change the mentality of people in the Church. As he said in the remarkable and lengthy interview published simultaneously last September by Jesuit periodicals around the world: “The first reform must be of attitude … the structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they come afterwards.” In the same interview he said we “need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change”. At 77 years of age, he is aware he does not have all the time in the world. But he is off to an impressive start.
The long-suffering and impatient champions of Church reform have lamented that he has not moved quickly enough to implement concrete changes. But they should recall that John XXIII, recognised as one of the most important reforming popes in history, also made very few – if any – major changes in his first years in office. However, by calling the Second Vatican Council he helped the bishops of the world find their voice and they took forward Church reform even after he died.
There are also those who still wonder whether Pope Francis’ real aim is to energise the base only to, in the end, keep things basically the same or merely make stylistic touch-ups and minor alterations. That thesis is becoming more difficult to sustain with each passing day, for the Pope surely knows that if he were to try to even remotely return Church life to the state it was in before he was elected Bishop of Rome he would loose a good proportion of his flock.
No, Francis increasingly appears to be the real deal. One might say that he has only just begun to take up the command that Christ gave to his sainted namesake of Assisi, “Rebuild my Church”.