Pope Francis takes fresh approach to papacy
Pope Francis
Pope Francis greets a boy after celebrating Mass at St. Anne’s Parish within the Vatican March 17. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Some are calling it a “quiet earthquake,” others a “gentle revolution.” Within days of an election that defied the predictions of the pundits, Pope Francis has abandoned, in small but potent ways, countless customs and expectations associated with the “monarchic” papacy, opting for freshness, directness and spontaneity. 

To call this a change in “style” is not quite accurate. It is a substantial shift in the way the pope speaks to humanity, throwing off the formality that appeared to be attached to the papacy. The founder of the Community of Bose in northern Italy, Enzo Bianchi, summed it up in an article, headlined “the pope becomes man.”

New way of doing things

The anecdotes have been rolling in ever since the last night of the conclave: how Pope Francis received the other cardinals’ congratulations in the Sistine Chapel standing up, rather than on his “throne”; how he chose to go back to their Vatican residence in the bus with them, rather than in his designated limousine; how he decided to pop out of the Vatican to see an elderly cardinal in hospital in the back of a simple Volkswagen, while the security followed in BMWs; how, the day after his election, he asked to be taken back to the clergy boarding house where he stayed before the conclave, in order to pay his bill (“I didn’t make any calls,” he reassured the receptionist); how he rejected the traditional papal red shoes in favor of his old black ones; how he refused a private secretary, preferring not to have “gatekeepers”; or how he entered the papal apartments and exclaimed: “there’s room for 300 people here. I don’t need all this space.” 

The stories have Rome, and Catholics the world over, abuzz. It is easy to imagine what we have not learned directly: the shocked faces of the Vatican courtiers, the objections raised by his security staff — one of whom has already complained to an Italian newspaper that “unless things settle down, he’s going to drive us all crazy” — and the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, telling journalists: “we’re going to have to get used to a new way of doing things.” 

The clash between the pope from the Americas, impatient to teach and preach in the most direct way possible, and the tradition-bound, protocol-heavy, highly regulated world of the Vatican court is the stuff of film scripts. But there is nothing staged about it. As auxiliary bishop and later archbishop of Buenos Aires, “Father Jorge” — as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was known — was notorious for his insistence on simplicity and fierce in resisting extravagance. Even when traveling abroad to give talks, he would refuse the offer of cars and would ask how to arrive by bus or train. In Argentina, where there is a special word, despilfarro, for the wasteful excess of public money, this approach had evangelical power. His commitment to the poor — he was not only a regular visitor to the villas miseria, or slums, that surround Buenos Aires, but tripled the number of priests present in them — has already given him a epithet in Argentina: el papa de los villeros, the “shantytown pope.” When Pope Francis told journalists March 16, “how I wish for a Church of the poor, and that the Church were poor,” it expressed a deep longing.

Simple desires

This invigorating directness and simplicity go along with a desire to reach out to people, evident from his first moments on the balcony of the loggia. “I never expected a papacy to begin with the words ‘good evening,’” said Father Tom Rosica, one of the priests allocated to brief journalists during the transition. Equally unexpected was the humble gesture of a pope bowing his head and asking for the world’s prayers. 

After spending time with the cardinals immediately after his election, and a brief surprise visit to the Marian basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on March 14, he made his first public appearances as pontiff. With journalists he was warm, engaging and humorous, acknowledging their hard work and offering encouragement — and even offering a fascinating story about why, when the vote for him was getting “dangerously close” to the two-thirds majority, he chose the name Francis (his friend, the archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Cláudio Hummes, had told him: “remember the poor”). 

On March 17, he celebrated Mass at the Vatican’s parish church of Sant’Anna, donning the same surplice any parish priest would wear, before standing at the porch, as any parish priest would, greeting his congregation as they came out. Then, spontaneously, he left the Vatican to shake the hands of the crowd outside. Not long after, he carried on his teaching on mercy from the window of the papal apartments, using his traditional Angelus message to drive home the point that God never tires of wanting to forgive people, even as people tire of asking for forgiveness. It was fine catechesis, delivered energetically and joyfully, together with anecdotes and humor.Rome is smitten by its bishop.

The radical evangelizer

Pope Francis has barely spoken, yet the signature tunes are unmistakable. He is not a liberal nor a modernizer, but a radical evangelizer. He has made clear he regards the greatest disaster that can befall the Church is that it turns in on itself, becoming “self-referential”; it must instead go out, be on mission, engage. Watching Pope Francis’s first days in Rome, it is obvious that sitting in dignity on thrones is not his style. He is forever getting up, walking over to people and embracing them, moving out and engaging. 

From the few interviews he gave as Cardinal Bergoglio, it is clear he regards “spiritual worldliness” — putting yourself, rather than Christ, at the center — is the besetting sin of the Church. “Christ remains the center, not the Sucessor of Peter: Christ, Christ is the center,” he told journalists emphatically March 16, adding: “Christ is the fundamental point of reference, the heart of the Church. Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.” 

Thus did the first Jesuit pope identify the basis for discerning the criteria for a coming reform: what points to Christ will be supported and developed; what points only to itself will be pruned. This renewal will not be carried out in isolation from the wider Church but with it. (Curial governance was a major theme of the pre-conclave meetings, but so was collegiality — the governance of the Church by “Peter along with the eleven.”) 

True reform in the Catholic Church always begins with the recovery of elements that have been gradually displaced: Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to resign was an example of such a “recovered” tradition; Pope Francis’ rediscovery of the evangelical simplicity of the Petrine ministry is another. All that has happened seems to support it. The gentle Franciscan revolution has begun. 

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices.