The Rebel of St. Peter's Square: Where Is Pope Francis Steering the Church?
In the third year of his pontificate, criticism is growing of Pope Francis. Members of the Vatican establishment are turning against him and he even shocks his own staff with his free thinking. Where does this enigmatic pope want to steer the Catholic Church?
They're an experienced team, the three of them. The driver has barely stopped, and already the security guard has grabbed a child from the crowd on the left and is holding it up for the pope. The pontiff bends over, kisses the child -- and then it's over.
The whole thing takes mere seconds and repeats itself several times during the pope's Wednesday lap of honor before the general audience on St. Peter's Square starts. If there are any larger groups he can see -- Boy Scouts, for example, or wheelchair-users -- then Christ's representative on Earth briefly taps the Popemobile-driver on the shoulder to get him to stop.
When observed from up close, Pope Francis comes across as a stately man. The white cassocks strain at his midsection, his pronounced chin is elongated and his eyes look searchingly into those of the people surrounding him. Compared to his predecessor, the almost otherworldly smiling Benedict XVI, the Argentinian comes across as downright earthly. As though there were no distance at all.
He hugs and he pats. He kisses small children and cardinals. He does it without warning and enthusiastically. It's almost as if he's using bodily contact to console himself for the burden of his position. He is the highest-ranking person of faith and a role model for the 1.3 billion Catholics around the world.
When Pope Francis, otherwise known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, entered St. Peter's Basilica at 10 a.m. on Pentecost Sunday for the Holy Mass, he had been in office for 797 days. Seven-hundred-ninety-seven days in which he has divided the Catholic rank-and-file into admirers and critics. At time during which more and more people have begun to wonder if he can live up to what he seems to have promised: renewal, reform and a more contemporary Catholic Church.
Francis has had showers for homeless people erected near St. Peter's Square, but has at the same time also spent millions on international consultants. He brought the Vatican Bank's finances into order, but created confusion in the Curia. He has negotiated between Cuba and the United States, but also scared the Israelis by calling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an "angel of peace."
This pope is much more enigmatic than his predecessor -- and that is becoming a problem. Right up to this day, many people have been trying to determine Francis' true intentions. If you ask cardinals and bishops, or the pope's advisors and colleagues, or veteran Vatican observers about his possible strategy these days -- the Pope's overarching plan -- they seem to agree on one point: The man who sits on the Chair of St. Peter is a notorious troublemaker.
Like a billiard player who nudges the balls and calmly studies the collisions during training, Francis is getting things rolling in the Vatican. His interest in experimentation may stem from his past as a chemical engineer. He makes decisions like Jesuit leaders -- after thorough consultation, but ultimately on his own.
The Francis principle has a workshop character to it, with processes more important than positions. Traditional Catholics see things exactly the other way around from Bergoglio, the Jesuit, and this is creating confusion right up to the highest circles of the Vatican. People want to know where the pope is heading.
The Pope's Empire
To get a better idea of the place from which Francis is declaring war on the Vatican's ossified system, a good way to start is to ride the elevator up from San Damaso Square in the world's smallest country. Upstairs, in the second Loggia of the Apostolic Palace, the door opens to the pope's empire.
Members of the Swiss Guard bang their heels and stand watch here in the half-darkness. Visitors pass through arcade passages decorated with masterpieces by Renaissance master Raphael and his students, before entering the heart of Catholic power -- the Clementine Hall, where Polish Pope John Paul II lay in state. It is the hall which houses the sedan chair Pope John XXIII used to get around, and the death chamber of Leo XIII.
Amidst all of this pomp and patina, Bergoglio, an Argentinian, still seems strangely alien to this day -- like a big, exotic bird beating its wings in a golden cage. When he's sitting at his desk in the Apostolic Palace, the pope -- a man who has assiduously dedicated his church to serving the poor -- only needs to push a golden button to set off a ring tone and summon a servant from the neighboring room.
If it weren't for the recently installed statue of the Madonna of Luján, the patron saint of Argentina, in the pope's library, everything at Catholic Church headquarters would look like it did when Benedict XVI was still in office. This despite the fact that, since the latter's resignation on Shrove Monday 2013, an experiment with an uncertain outcome has been carried out in the Vatican, instigated in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. In the process, Pope Francis is simultaneously fighting on three fronts: against the claims to power of his council, the Curia; against ostentation and pomp in the clergy; and for a radical return to the Gospel.
When Bergoglio announced the beginning of a new era on March 13, 2013, with a subtle "buona sera" from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, things were going badly for the Catholic Church. In the past several years, its image had been shaped by scandals involving child abuse, corruption and money laundering, document theft in the papal apartments and intrigue in the Curia. If nothing else, the Cardinals chose Bergoglio to be the successor to Ratzinger for this reason: The unblemished "Pope from the end of the world" was supposed to clean up shop.
A Pope and His Predecessor
There's one person with an up-front view who should know what's changed: Archbishop Georg Gänswein, known as "Don Giorgio." Still Ratzinger's private secretary, he also serves as the chief of protocol, the top person in the Apostolic Palace under Francis. His title: prefect of the papal household. As a servant of two masters, and a man who navigates between two worlds, Gänswein is emblematic of a situation that has never before occurred: A pope and his predecessor living as neighbors in the Vatican.
On this particular morning, Gänswein is wearing cassocks made by Gammarelli, the Vatican's court tailor. He's also wearing shiny cufflinks and a massive golden cross around his neck. Described as the "George Clooney of the Vatican" by journalists, he doesn't think he should have to slip into prayer robes simply because of the sudden enthusiasm for modesty that has taken hold under Francis. "No," says Gänswein, who is open about the fact that he considers fellow clergymen, "not excluding" cardinals, to be cowards for recently exchanging their golden crosses for tin ones at Porta Sant'Anna, near the entry to the Vatican.
He claims that the many subjects on which the two popes agree are lost in all the excitement over Francis and his warning against "spiritual worldliness" -- meaning the devotion to the profane. "His successor is now honoring what Benedict XVI called for," Gänswein says. "The only difference is that Francis is celebrated instead of being criticized for his appeals."
Indeed, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first non-European on the papal throne in over one thousand years, has quickly become a favorite of Catholics -- and even more so of non-believers and the media. In his first year, Francis appeared on the covers of both Time and Rolling Stone. Business magazine Fortune named him the world's greatest leader. The Economist raved that Francis was on the verge of reinventing "the world's oldest multinational."
Undoing the Fetters
Almost 6 million faithful attended audiences in 2014. According to many observers, this says a lot for the pope -- Francis is breaking with tradition, and thus is undoing the fetters. He is letting outside experts reorganize the scandal-rocked Vatican Bank. He is having the reform of the Curia pushed through by cardinals who previously had little to do with the governing body. He encourages the church to talk about family, about marriage, about sexuality, and doesn't get tired of arguing for more compassion and solidarity for the poor and the marginalized, whether he's in Lampedusa or Copacabana.
And this pope is political. He takes positions, including uncomfortable ones. He doesn't dodge, he gets involved. Before negotiating rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, he held a four-hour prayer vigil for peace in Syria. He scandalized Turkey by describing the Armenian genocide as just that, and provoked Israel by acknowledging Palestine as an independent state.
Not surprisingly, critics within the church have begun quietly grumbling in the pontiff's third year, but it is becoming increasingly audible. There are various reasons why they feel uneasy about the man from Buenos Aires: His leadership style is supposedly too authoritarian, his self-marketing is too sophisticated, he doesn't know enough about matters of doctrine. Prominent German novelist Martin Mosebach even openly claims that this pope is making his mark "at the expense of the church." He argues that Francis "throws around snazzy sayings" and gets attention by fitting in with the zeitgeist, but that he cares little about tradition.
As it turns out, it's not just Bergoglio's theological side that perplexes people, it's also the man himself. His always soft voice obscures his word choices and contradictions. He has accused his cardinals of suffering from "spiritual Alzheimer's" and warned believers not to breed like "rabbits." At the same time, and in front of thousands of listeners, he praised a father who smacks his child, but never in the face. "How beautiful! He knows the sense of dignity," he said.
Bergoglio is a surprising pope in every sense of the word. But what does he want? Does he have a plan for his church, or is he simply content turning everything in this small, walled Kremlin-like state in the middle of Rome on its head? Francis' plan is actually for a church in which the power rises from the bottom to the top -- but that also seems like an unspoken declaration of war, especially against the Vatican Curia.
Others expect a lot from the pope -- but he also expects a great deal of himself. The light in apartment 201, in the third story of the Santa Marta guest house, goes on at around 4 a.m. The area is still quiet at that time. Only a few hours later, shortly before the beginning of the early mass, do things start coming to life in the Vatican's alleys and gardens, as well as in St. Peter's Basilica and further down, in the Campo Santo Teutonico, a bastion of German residents in the city-state. Up in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, former Pope Benedict XVI conducts mass with Archbishop Gänswein and four nuns.
Francis celebrates mass down below, in the simple Santa Marta chapel where, in front of handpicked visitors, he gives the message of the day, which will later be passed on by the media. The Catholic Church, his sermons argue, needs to get closer to the people; a spiritual leader needs to be a shepherd living with the smell of the sheep, the pope is fond of saying.
It makes sense then, that the pope doesn't like being protected in the Apostolic Palace -- a "funnel," he claims, that only allows visitors in "drop by drop" -- and instead resides in the Santa Marta guest house. He has moved his control center here, and he and his employees occupy an entire floor -- a plan that raised both costs and hackles. Francis, however, lives modestly in a three-room mini-apartment, between statues of the Virgin Mary, crucifixes and a coffer with eight bone fragments of the Apostle Peter.
If the pope looks out his window, he can glimpse impressive history. On the left, in the Palazzo San Carlo, former Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, the strongman of the Ratzinger era, looks out of his roomy residence. Bertone's predecessor, Angelo Sodano, lives in the Ethiopian College. Former Pope Benedict XVI lives in an apartment up on a hill that he shares with Georg Gänswein. And there's also Cardinal Walter Brandmüller -- 86 years old, former chief historian of the Vatican and one of the leaders of the conservative Bergoglio critics. He lives just above the vestry of St. Peter's Basilica.
Sometimes, while Francis is still busy preparing for his Sunday Angelus prayer, Brandmüller is already sermonizing in the heart of St. Peter's Basilica -- and directing caustic questions at the pope and his "public relations strategies": "Will the clattering of the church apparatuses wake up the sleeping? Bring the attention of the masses to the Christian message?"
Brandmüller isn't the only person to have his doubts. Meanwhile, Francis works restlessly, like someone who doesn't have much time left to implement his plan. After morning mass he eats breakfast with the faithful. Then, in the morning, he makes his way through administrative meetings with Gänswein in the palace, and after a brief afternoon break, dedicates himself to the truly revolutionary part of his daily routine: his off-the-record meetings with the public, which he organizes by circumventing the Curia, using his phone, pen and paper himself.
In these hours, the doors to the papal apartments stand open: for victims of abuse, transsexuals, admitted agnostics, longtime confidants and bishops on a mandatory visit to the Vatican, whom the pope invites to "the fireside," as he calls the shared discussions. Not everything discussed there stays secret -- thanks to the more talkative members of those meetings, Francis' thoughts about this and that in the Vatican emerge.
Critics argue that a pope should have the last word, and not utter the first thing that comes to mind. Chatter isn't part of his job. Supporters counter: Francis is searching for dialogue, and that already speaks in his favor.
The best symbol of the Vatican's new style isn't the forgoing of the red shoes and the ermine-trimmed mozetta, but rather the renunciation of strict guidelines in general. Suddenly, meetings with high-ranking members of the Curia that used to be regularly scheduled are no longer take place. On Tuesday mornings, Francis no longer sermonizes for the general audience, instead doing whatever he wants to. In Albania, his prepared and already translated speech, was interrupted when two victims of Stalinism move the pope to tears.
Whenever Francis goes off-script, the Vatican's press department prepares for the worst. This pope keeps everyone on their toes, says one high-ranking member of the Curia: "With him, you can even imagine him selling Michelangelo's Pietà and giving the money to the poor."
When he's in a rush, Bergoglio picks up the phone himself. "I find this uncomplicated way of doing things very positive," says powerful Swiss Curia Cardinal Kurt Koch in his reception room. Koch is the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and a member of five congregations. He was even considered a pope-candidate, or "papabile," before the 2013 Conclave.
'Francis Has a Clear Goal'
The humble former Bishop of Basel, who wears a silver cross around his neck, regularly meets his boss for a meal or a glass of wine. "I thoroughly believe," Koch says, "that Francis has a clear goal, which is that the church needs to become more missionary and not revolve around itself." But it is questionable, he argues, how much this pope can ultimately change: "There is a lot of excitement about him, but as one can certainly see, in the people leaving the church in many countries, you can't really detect a Francis effect."
The pope can fill the squares with his sermons, but not the churches or the priest seminars, at least not in Europe. It's still unclear what he stands for -- except for a church that is looking for its flock on the edges of society. A more decisive agenda is expected to be set by the Synod of Bishops in October. At that point, a discussion is to take place about the future of the family, positions towards homosexuals and the question of whether divorced people who have remarried should be allowed to receive communion. At the heart of the raging quarrel over the church's direction is a single question: In the 21st century, who needs to move towards whom -- the modern person towards the Catholic Church and all of its iron-clad requirements and prohibitions? Or the church towards the people and today's diverse forms of modern partnership?
In the Palace of the Holy Office, in which Galileo was once imprisoned, Cardinal Müller, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, represents the immovable standpoint: namely that the fundamentals of the faith -- those laid down in writing and tradition, in dogmas, encyclicals and papal writings -- are not to be shaken. In a recent interview for a Polish Catholic newspaper, Müller warned that even high-ranking clergy have allowed themselves to be so "dazzled by secular society" that they have lost sight of the important teachings of the church.
Francis' motto, on the contrary, is: "Reality stands above the idea." Instead of withdrawing in the name of pure teachings, he claims it is better to "allow oneself to be surprised by the Holy Spirit."
However, when it comes to doctrine, Francis has shown himself to be a proponent of the traditional family. He says he doesn't have any interest in constantly "addressing abortion, homosexual marriage, contraception." But he also knows: It will not suffice to criticize the dispute as one between "hostile torpor" on the right-hand side and "destructive do-gooder-ness" on the left, as he has in the past.
In his programmatic treatise "Evangelii gaudium," from November 2013, Francis emphasized joy in the proclamation of the Gospel over an uncompromising adherence to the teachings. It is an approach that excites simple worshippers and faraway observers of the church in particular, but less so the dignitaries and trustees of the Catholic Church.
For others, especially Germans, the Pope is still a disappointment: too conservative for progressives, and too noncommittal for conservatives.
In the "Evangelii gaudium," Francis wrote he did not "believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world." On the other hand, he warned priests not to talk 10 times about sexual abstinence and only two or three times about love. And again and again he has brought up the dignity of man and the right to work. A system that excludes many from wages and bread, he has written, is unacceptable: "Such an economy kills."
The Latin-American Pope
His word choice reveals that the man on the Chair of St. Peter has less experience with Western-style social economics and social encyclicals in the Catholic Church than he does with poor Latin American neighborhoods. When he was elected pope, Bergoglio was 76 years old -- and had previously spent almost his entire life in Argentina. That might best explain why this pope is so different.
"Jorge, don't change." Bergoglio told his biographer Elisabetta Piqué that he had made this resolution right after his election in Rome. He has taken into consideration that there is a danger that he will repeat the "old mistakes" in his new position. But a man of his age makes himself look silly, he argued, if he tries to reinvent himself. In Rome, consequently, he now acts according to a model that harkens back to his time in Argentina: The Francis principle.
Bergoglio himself claims that even when he was a Jesuit Provincial Superior he made "decisions in very abrupt and personal ways." Back then, at the age of 36, he had been named the highest-ranking Jesuit in the country. As Jesuit priest Carlos Carranza stated for the record, Bergoglio's strict rules meant that despite his selfless mission, "he and his way of leading the province" encountered hostility.
It's been documented that in 1986, in a time of "great inner crisis," as Bergoglio describes it, he was transferred for disciplinary reasons to the city of Córdoba. The exact reasons have remained secret. Another witness of the period claimed that some Jesuit monks considered Bergoglio to be crazy. Even his mail and his phone were monitored.
His reputation for being pious, uncomfortable and inscrutable remained when he became the rector of a theological college and the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Argentinian Nobel Prize winner Pérez Esquivel publicly pleaded to the Holy Spirit that the "ambiguous" and politically hard-to-categorize Bergoglio should not become pope. Eight years later, it happened anyway.
Since then, Bergoglio has continued to follow his old principle: "Hagamos lio" -- "create confusion" -- and trusts that the processes that he puts into motion will spur positive changes. "He himself doesn't know where they will lead, he trusts the Holy Ghost," suspects Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi. For Francis, he claims, what counts is a "church in movement."
Conservative US Cardinal Raymond Burke, the head of the top Vatican jurisdiction, has been witness to this movement firsthand. A week after Burke criticized his church as a "ship without a rudder" in an interview, Francis pushed him into a post with the Order of the Knights of St. John. When it became known shortly thereafter that the commander of the Swiss Guard was also being pushed out, Vatican insiders reacted with outrage: "This is worse than in the Islamic State," one of them reportedly said.
The clean-up work in the Vatican is a long way from being finished -- the fundamental reform of the Curia is still ongoing. A committee -- which also includes German Cardinal Reinhard Max, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising -- is considering suggestions. In Francis' eyes, he and the other eight members share one main advantage: They are outsiders, they barely know the Curia and act as foreign invaders disturbing the court's immune system.
Francis' opinions about the Curia became clear on Dec. 22. A storm was unleashed in Clementine Hall, emptying itself over dozens of moiré-silk-clad skullcap-wearing cardinals, as well as the bishops cowering behind them. In any normal business, it would have been considered a vote of no-confidence against its leaders.
Not so in the Vatican, where Francis first complained about "spiritual petrification" and "existential schizophrenia" in the Curia -- then made a smiling round and received loyal addresses of discipline. And this from all those who voted for him in the 2013 Conclave so that he may bring order to things with a strong hand.
In the meantime, the angry whispering in the church has grown. Even lower-ranking Curia colleagues complain of a lack of sensitivity -- especially toward the low-earners in the Vatican who had their overtime hours cut, and this by a pope who sermonizes about charity. They must now survive on wages of around 1,000 ($1,094) a month.
The experts from renowned consulting companies -- like KPMG, Deloitte & Touch or Ernst & Young -- who Francis brought in make similar amounts of money in just a few hours. They audit the books of the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), the Vatican Bank, or the economic plans of the Holy See -- with success. The Vatican's finances and properties, which are estimated to be worth several billion euros, are no longer in the permanent sights of the public prosecutors.
Neither Conservative nor Progressive
But Francis' radical approach isn't appreciated by all Catholics. One German cleric says that the transgressions of individuals in the past in no way justify the way the current pope is cursing his staff. "Any tree can produce rotten fruit, but does that mean you automatically take the axe to the trunk?" he asks.
"Francis isn't just a very free man, he's also a bubbling volcano," says Sicilian Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Jesuit newspaper Civiltà Cattolica, which has been considered the unofficial central organ of the Vatican since Francis took office.
Spadaro conducted the very first interview with Bergoglio after his election as pope in 2013. Even then, Spadaro says in his office, you could recognize that this man was "more of a shepherd than an ideologist," that he was "full of ideas" but nevertheless realistic when it came to what he might be able to achieve. "I don't believe that Francis seriously expects that he will be able to complete the processes that he has initiated," he says.
The editor says the question of where to steer the church is not the pope's top priority. "It's very possible that he himself doesn't even know," he adds, saying that a man like Francis can't easily be squeezed into established patterns of thinking. "He is neither conservative nor progressive, he's not an ideologist -- he's more radical in the literal sense -- a person searching for roots." Spadaro also says, with a smile, that the Argentinian's tendency, like that of all Jesuits, to "think in a processual, open-minded way" makes him come across as erratic, but that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. "The Lord God is also unpredictable," he says.
Francis is free of fear and he's curious. "The shepherd who locks himself in is not a true pastor for his sheep, but just a 'hairdresser' for sheep, putting in their curlers, instead of going out to seek others," Francis has said. That's why he often has a chauffeur drive him outside of the Vatican into worldly Rome in a modest Ford Focus. The first time he went to visit the Jesuit Curia, he called on his own to announce himself and say he would be making a whistle-stop visit. The receptionist on the other end of the line asked, "With whom am I speaking?" Francis answered, "The Pope." The man in turn said, "Yeah, and I'm Napoleon," before hanging up.
Word has since gotten around that Francis is often out and about. After trips abroad, he kneels down to pray at Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, and he visits jails during his free time. He's also already made three visits to a soup kitchen run by the Jesuits in the city.
A Slice of Home
The Jesuits and their possessions in Rome are a slice of home for Bergoglio, who isn't fond of traveling and has done as little of it as possible all his life. In addition to the Jesuits, the pope is also surrounded by longtime confidants who give him a sense of being at home. They include his secretary, Fabian Pedacchio from Buenos Aires, who lives on the same floor as Francis. And Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, a rector of the Papal Catholic University in Buenos Aires who is considered a progressive on moral issues, serves as an important advisor to Francis and flies in to visit him at the Vatican on a regular basis.
Another friend of Francis', Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Honduras, known for his critiques of capitalism, coordinates the Council of Cardinal Advisors. Meanwhile, Argentinian Jesuit Miguel Yáñez Molina has been dispatched to head the sensitive Commission for Safeguarding Minors, which has been set up to combat pedophilia in the church. Molina has been a confidant of Francis for 40 years. Finally, Brazilian Bishop Erwin Kräutler has been a major contributor to the pope's encyclical on the subject of ecology, which is set to be released soon.
The clout of the Latin American wing of the church is growing within the Vatican. When it comes to issues like marriage and family, that branch has to set different priorities than the European one, which is something Francis recognized early on. For a long time, the American and European wings of the church were dominant in the Vatican, but their power is eroding under Francis. This is not without logic, either, given that more than half of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics live in the southern hemisphere. Francis has taken this into account and has made the church more international. In February, for the first time in Vatican history, the church appointed cardinals in Myanmar and Tonga.
In Germany, the Catholic Church is continuing its decline, losing members by the year. Does this mean that Francis has as few answers to the Western world's questions of faith as his predecessor did? Archbishop Gänswein makes an effort not to come across as partisan on this question. He says Francis does a good job of communicating in the media and that he has a "seventh sense" for it. He says the pope is talented when it comes to reaching people's "hearts and minds." But after the headlines in recent years about child abuse and slush funds, even that isn't enough to suddenly make the church attractive again.
Gänswein himself doesn't believe that one man's charisma alone can foster a shift in the thinking of the entire church. He also deplores the submission many of his colleagues have demonstrated toward this modest pope. "Many are no longer objecting just because they have a guilty conscience," he says.
Connected By Fate
Now Gänswein has to go -- from the new pope up to the old pope. It takes seven minutes on foot and a hike of 30 vertical meters through the Vatican gardens to reach the Mater Ecclesiae monastery.
At Ratzinger's place there is still a strict regimen. Lunch with the nuns at 1:30 p.m. is followed by a walk and a siesta. Afterwards, Gänswein returns to work with the new pope. Later, he returns to the old pope for dinner at 7:30 p.m. where, of course, Francis is a topic of discussion. "I don't know what Benedict XVI thinks about the individual decisions or sermons," Gänswein says. "We discuss that in a very reserved way."
With the exception of Gänswein, who had been privy to Benedict's plan to step down, no one had any clue at the beginning of 2013 that it would one day be possible for two popes to run into each other inside the Vatican walls. The two have been connected by fate since then -- or at the very least since the March day in 2013 when Francis returned by helicopter from a meeting with Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo with a large box in his baggage. It contained the investigative report on Vatileaks -- documents about corruption and mismanagement surrounding the Vatican, replete with machinations and gay saunas. Since then the former pope's legacy has been a burden for Francis.
Benedict XVI and Francis do meet up from time to time, dining together or exchanging thoughts. They call each other on the phone and exchange letters. Reports about differences between the two are officially denied. Publicly, the pope speaks only positively about his predecessor. He says having Benedict XVI is like having "a wise grandfather at home."
Still, rumors about Ratzinger having an adjunct papal role and making well-timed theological interventions persist. "It's all made up," Gänswein says. "It is being spread by interested parties." Others within the Vatican say the differences between the popes are much less significant than they may appear to be from the outside. After all, Pope Benedict XVI also preached modesty, ate lasagna with homeless people and visited jails. But even that didn't help the German thinker and theorist. Francis, on the other hand, has had little trouble winning over hearts.
He has already created considerable momentum. He has involved himself to a high degree in foreign policy, positioning himself much more clearly than his predecessor. Meanwhile, his fight to bring transparency to the Vatican's coffers has also been successful. Most criticism of him so far has come from within the global Catholic Church. Indeed, the enthusiasm of millions is countered by growing antagonism within the Catholic establishment. The recurring complaint is that Francis blabbers a lot but is doing too little to clarify the direction in which he wants to steer the church.
If there's one thing he's succeeded in maintaining, it's the lightness, the serenity and the cheerfulness with which he serves, and with which he breaks conventions and muddles up Catholic institutions. Francis is an anti-pope, one like no other who preceded him. He excommunicated mafia bosses, for example. And he does things that weren't even intended as his duties. He occasionally calls people up: Obama, Putin, ordinary believers. There's a revolutionary air to it all.
Still, this isn't a revolution. This pope may be a free spirit, but he's also conservative and doesn't appear to be poised or able to change much of the church's fundamentals. That, indeed, may be the source from the very beginning of one of the greatest misconceptions about Francis: the fact that he tries to be close to the church's followers and keep a distance from its apparatus doesn't necessarily mean he'll stray far from its doctrine and dogmas.
This year will be a decisive one for the pope. On Dec. 8, exactly 50 years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council -- which focused on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world -- an extraordinary Holy Year will begin. With this scheduling, Francis wants to convey the message that he does, in fact, want to be a reformer. But in the process, he will have to battle the somnambulistic pace of the Catholic Church apparatus. Effecting change to the spirit of the Vatican requires years in office, the appointment of new cardinals and reforms. Francis may not have that much time. So far, the pope has only appointed 31 of the 120 cardinals entitled to vote for a successor.
Much will now hinge on how the pope continues to endure his 18-hour days. Francis is 78 years old and has lived for decades without part of his right lung. He also struggles with back pain. When he climbs up to the altar in front of St. Peter's Basilica, he sometimes starts wheezing heavily. It appears that Francis often thinks about throwing in the towel, and he's even open about it. He has publicly stated that "my pontificate will be a short one." But even if that turns out to be the case, there is one thing people will be able to say about his pontificate: that he has shown that the church can have a different feel to it than many people who had given up on it thought.
"Morto un Papa, se ne fa un altro" -- is a common saying in Rome that means, literally translated, if a pope dies, then the next one comes. It's as flippant as it is pious. When people first came up with the saying, nobody would have thought there could ever be two living popes, let alone three.
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