ROME — Seated in one of the thousands of stacking chairs packed between the enfolding arms of St. Peter’s Square, pointed at a small stage on the steps of one of the world’s most recognizable places of worship, Texan Bob Boillet uses the word everybody seems to be using when talking about the head of his church, Pope Francis.
The word? “Hope.” It’s a big word for many Roman Catholics these days. There’s hope for inclusion, for acceptance and mostly for forgiveness.
“He talks about a more open-armed church. I like that,” the 48-year-old San Antonio resident said. “Actual change won’t be easy, especially when that change is about some dearly held beliefs. But he talks about a more open, more accepting church, and that gives me hope.”
It’ll be a year ago next Thursday when a puff of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel announced that the Roman Catholic Church had a new head. The choice was a 76-year-old Argentine cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He arrived to find a church that many thought was out of touch with the modern world.
His church was struggling most visibly with a child sex abuse crisis, but there were other problems, such as how to deal with the modern realities of marriage, divorce and contraception. The Vatican bank had been shunned by most of Europe’s central bankers. There were reports of homosexual orgies that involved members of the Vatican’s government, fueled by a series of leaks of secret Vatican reports.
Amid this chaos, Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a theologian who’d once overseen the church’s investigation of child sexual abuse, announced that he would retire. It was a notion, in a church where every leader had died in office since 1294, that underscored the level of crisis. Popes simply don’t retire.
Another centuries-old assumption also was about to die. The new pope was from South America, the first non-European to lead the church since A.D. 741. It was a signal of a church turning from its European past to a Southern Hemisphere future.
Bergoglio was not a choice without controversy, not least because he was not a man without controversy. Immediately, old accusations resurfaced that he’d failed to stand up strongly enough against the abductions of two priests during Argentina’s “dirty war,” an accusation he’s strongly denied.
Others wondered whether Pope Francis would be as fiery as he’d been when as the archbishop of Buenos Aires he’d once lashed out at “hypocrites” among the clergy who “drive God’s people away from salvation” by refusing to baptize the children of unwed mothers.
But if his ascension created a bit of stir, his first year in office has been closer to a whirlwind. Within months, those both inside and watching the Vatican — the city-state within Rome that serves as home to the church — were talking about “the Francis revolution” and “Vatican glasnost,” a reference to the period in Soviet history when Mikhail Gorbachev began coming clean about huge problems, such as the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Francis quickly told the Vatican to act aggressively on child sexual abuse cases and has since set up a commission to advise him on how to deal with pedophile priests. While a change in policy remains to be seen, it was an open and very public declaration of intent, which many saw as at least the beginning of a positive change.
In addition, on a plane ride back to the Vatican from a World Youth Day in Brazil, he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
He baptized the baby of a couple who’d been married outside the church — in the Sistine Chapel, no less — and promised an unmarried pregnant woman that he’d baptize her child as well, if she couldn’t find another willing priest.
The head of an almost unimaginably wealthy church, he spoke out against financial inequality. In a November apostolic exhortation, he said, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
The Rev. Professor Diarmaid N.J. MacCulloch, one of the world’s most noted Vatican experts, who teaches at Saint Cross College of Oxford University, said it was difficult not to be impressed by the speed with which Francis had changed the image of a global church.
“He’s not put a foot wrong so far and he’s clearly a delightful and lovable man,” MacCulloch told McClatchy in an email. “And the change of atmosphere he’s created is remarkable … the transformation from the embattled atmosphere, particularly under Benedict, and the bits of the spectrum which John Paul II simply seemed unable to see (like the real seriousness of the child abuse scandal) is remarkable.”
But, MacCulloch noted, there is a “but.” In fact, he said what many have said through the centuries about attempting dramatic change at the Vatican: “Overnight, things have changed. Very dangerous for him.”
There are powerful vested interests in the church status quo. As such, some Vatican watchers focus more on Pope Francis’ moves with the Vatican bank than on his social programs. In his first year, he replaced four of five cardinals who sat on a bank supervisory board. Those replaced had been appointed to five-year terms in the last days of Benedict’s papacy.
During Francis’ first year, the Vatican has been more transparent about scandals within the bank — most notably accusations of money laundering — than a history of tightly held finances would have foreseen.
Still, how deep and broad change can be is another matter. Marco Tosatti, who writes the Vatican Insider blog for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, said that until now change had mostly been skin deep.
“It’s an image change, certainly,” he said. “But real change can take many years, even several popes. You don’t so easily change an organization of 1 billion Catholics.”
While Francis has addressed topics such as Communion for those who’ve divorced and offered hope for a larger role for women in the church hierarchy, Tosatti notes that any change would come against the deeply held beliefs of many around the world. Change isn’t as easy as announcing it from the Vatican.
Tosatti points to a bishops’ synod on the family scheduled for October as a better gauge of the potential for change than simply reviewing the pope’s statements after a year. There, topics such as divorce and single-parent families are expected to be discussed in depth, providing a real view of church opinion.
Still, an image change is no small feat. And that change in the church is evident even in the way Pope Francis appears on the news in Rome. John Paul II was a superstar pope; experts note that he was covered almost like a celebrity, with the focus on his personality. Pope Benedict XVI was a dour theologian. He made headlines only when he seemed provocative. But Francis makes headlines every time he speaks. The change in image, at least around the Vatican, has been so dramatic that every word he utters is parsed and discussed for new, hidden changes it might bring.
While a new poll says Francis has yet to bring more worshippers to the pews in the United States, attendance at his weekly audiences here — every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. he preaches to and blesses the crowds in St. Peter’s Square — is up an estimated 30 percent. When he arrives, in an open-topped Mercedes on a slightly elevated flatbed, he rolls over the ancient cobbles of the square down open rows that allow him to come into closer contact with the followers and pilgrims who’ve made the journey to see him in person.
He’s joyous; he stops to kiss babies. In November he famously kissed Vinicio Riva, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, which immediately became of a symbol of his concern and connection to all people. But even on less dramatic occasions, his connection to the audience is visible. He’s the leader, the one everyone wants to see. But when he stops to take a sip from an onlooker’s soda or laughs good-heartedly when he’s asked to share in a selfie, there’s a sense that he’s not just the head of the church but one of its followers, as well.
Anne Ahern is a Catholic who’s spent most of her life as a Roman, working around and with Vatican journalists, historians and followers. She said the increase of interest in this pope was palpable. Even very conservative priests seem intrigued by his vision, often repeating his Wednesday themes in their Sunday sermons.
Sitting in a cafe just blocks from the Vatican after a papal audience, she correctly noted: “What he said this morning will be the top story on all the local newscasts. What he said was pretty standard sermon material, today. But the journalists don’t want to get caught missing something that, again, is new. Francis is a revolution.”
MacCulloch added that revolutions are difficult to control.
“Equally dangerous is the release of expectations — it’s like the history of France in the 19th century,” he wrote. “Liberalism comes in, and then all is swept away by people wanting much more than the liberals expected. So it’s a very difficult tiger to ride.”
Others note that revolution, in an institution such as the Catholic Church, cannot be completed quickly.
Pope Francis acknowledged as much in an interview last year with America magazine, a Jesuit publication.
“I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time.”