Pope Francis has been nearly universally lauded since his election earlier this month. In the streets of Rome, and in papers and newscasts around the world, he’s been praised for his simplicity, humility and compassionate messages.
Easter is always a time of great spiritual public events within the Roman Catholic Church. All eyes are now on Francis, as every word, each move, every gesture is analyzed, parsed out and deconstructed in a search for meaning.
No one expects the new Pope to announce changes or make appointments over the next few days of this especially religious period. But he will have a lot of room to set the stage as he speaks during the many Easter masses and events.
It’s nearly impossible to fault Francis’s messages so far — love and help for the poor; personal responsibility for creating a better world; the need to care for the sick, elderly and young; and encouraging all individual Catholics to make an honest and authentic attempt to become a better person everyday. Compassion is hard to criticize.
But regaining institutional credibility, one profoundly damaged — both inside and outside the church — by years of scandal and mistrust, means that those words must soon become concrete actions. Francis must get his message out, and his church on board.
The Curia is curious
In any company or institution with a new boss, people get edgy.
They want to know what the new modus operandi is going to be — what the new boss likes and doesn’t like. People want to know which way the wind is blowing in their organization, and what shared vision they are working towards. They know if the boss wants X to happen, they’d better make it happen. The Vatican is no different. That’s what makes these next few days so important.
Francis has been firing across the bow of the church hierarchy ever since he stepped out onto the balcony. Now, whether they act from a profound sense of wanting to support Pope Francis’s vision or from a more base desire for self-preservation, the members of the Vatican hierarchy must translate Francis’s speeches and personal deeds into collective action. At least, if they know what’s good for them.
This Pope smiles a lot, but behind it you sense a will of steel.
So when Francis says, "Jesus has no house because he dwells in people," questions start to be asked about what that might mean to the thousands of bricks-and-mortar churches around the world. When the pope warns his priests around the world to "go out" amongst the people, and says that it is not through "constant introspection that we encounter the Lord," he’s talking about very real changes to the way some clergy live their lives. Expect more of these messages over the next few days.
Taking an axe to pomp, circumstance
As we’ve seen, Francis is also communicating in much more subtle ways. For example, by taking an axe to a lot of liturgical pomp and circumstance.
Now it may be hard to imagine that what a pope wears for shoes, or how the candlesticks are placed on an altar, can send a major signal, but in a place run in part on ritual, subtlety and whispers, such things matter. An Italian newspaper recently devoted a photo essay to Francis’s cheap black plastic wristwatch, and what its continued presence might mean. In rare public criticism of Francis, some of the more conservative Catholic liturgical blogs are actually indignant over his simplicity of style.
This can all seem very "inside baseball" for people outside the Vatican circles. And in many ways it is – sometimes stultifying so. But all institutions have their discreet codes, their own internal language and style. Learning to read and interpret these subtle yet powerful signals correctly is vital if the church is going to implement Francis’s vision and regain its lost credibility.
Not just cardinals, but right down to priests in parishes across the world. A pope’s personality has global impact.
The challenge now is learning Francis’s code.
When a pope chooses not to move into the fancy apartment with the spectacular view, when he insists on eating communal meals and attending mass with Vatican garbage collectors, it becomes a lot harder for others to keep their perks. Over time, we can expect a trickle-down effect as the "man in white" leads by example and others rush to board the simplicity train. But that, too, creates problems.
Much is being made by the Vatican of "continuity" between Benedict XVI and Francis. There’s truth to this. It’s not like anyone expects to see married priests anytime soon. But the priorities of Pope Francis… that’s where things are getting interesting.
A new chapter in church history
Some in the Curia say privately that they welcome Francis as the opportunity to "write a new chapter" in church history. But as they sit with pens poised, in many ways, they’re staring at a blank page.
Stroll through the bookshops near Vatican City and you’ll see a dozen "instant" publications about Francis. They’re short little affairs of a couple dozen pages, breathlessly written in the last few days and all attempting to puzzle out the thinking and backstory of the new pope.
Among the publications that have recently hit the shelves are two books (pamphlets, really) written by Francis himself, back when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio. People are poring over them in Vatican offices and Roman cafés, trying to figure out his style and his vision — trying to find the way forward.
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Popes don’t come with "party" platforms like prime ministers or presidents. So Francis’s public statements and actions are all we have to go on until he begins to write church documents.
Unlike many well-known cardinals (such as Josef Ratzinger, who become Pope Benedict XVI), Bergoglio has not been widely published. He was known in Rome for avoiding the limelight, sitting at the back of the room during meetings, speaking quietly and seldom. So there’s little to go on when it comes to figuring out his aspirations for the world’s largest and most diverse organization. That’s what makes his words over these next few days so important.
That, and what can be puzzled out through his agenda.
We know the Pope has had many private meetings with curial government officials (including Cardinal Marc Ouellet) over the last few days. The Vatican newspaper prints a small list of "audiences" every day, which is eagerly scrutinized as people try to piece together what might be happening behind the Vatican walls. Everyday there’s buzz about who might get tapped for something big. But other than oblique rumour, we’ll never learn what was said during these closed-door discussions.
The Pope is calling for a simpler church, and his message is being echoed in the Vatican newspaper, on Vatican radio, by those in Curial offices and even the secular media. But Francis will need to make sure that his drive for simplicity doesn’t just become a litany.
Francis will need help
Now, anyone who has ever tried to change an institutional culture, say at work, or in a club, or even their local community garden group, knows that simplifying things doesn’t just happen because you talk about it. Try to turn something complex into something simple, and you can find yourself trapped in a labyrinth of conflicting priorities and personalities. Francis is going to need help.
In the cobblestoned streets around Vatican City, much has been made of the "political" appointments the Pope is expected to make after Easter, like who exactly he will choose to fill the various offices of the Curial government — most importantly, the powerful secretary of state job.
But there is another possibility also being quietly talked about: Francis could move through the Curia like a hot knife through butter.
Rather than merely appoint like-minded officials to the dozens of pre-existing offices and attempt to reform from within, Francis could bust apart the Curia and rebuild it in his own fashion. He is Pope, after all — the last absolute monarch in Europe. Using the nuclear option would certainly demonstrate change. Fear alone could convince any cardinals planning to resist Francis’s message to step into line.
The Pope has a responsibility to see that his words don’t remain rhetoric and that his own deeds aren’t done in isolation. Being a leader requires more. The international media, which has been gentle on this gentle man, will likely take off the gloves after Easter.
My bet is that the cardinals of the conclave are going to get more than they bargained for, and that Pope Francis will not only continue his own personal message of humility but find a way to make it stick.