Has 'rock star' Pope Francis really launched a revolution?

In the year since he's been in office, Pope Francis has made progressive statements about homosexuality and poverty to the point where the media are anointing him the 'rock star Pope.' But just how much of a game-changer is he?

Progressive statements aside, pontiff runs organization steeped in conservatism

From the moment he stepped onto the Vatican balcony high above St. Peter’s Square, it was clear there was something different about him. 

He wore a plain white robe, a simple cross and offered a casual "Good evening."

“Buona sera,” he said, and the crowd roared its approval.  

In the year since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, that roar has hardly diminished.

“Rock star Pope takes the world by storm,” says longtime Vatican journalist John Allen. “That’s become the dominant narrative.” 

As Allen, who writes for the Boston Globe and works regularly in Rome, points out, the story of the Catholic Church a year ago was scandal — pedophile priests, Vatican bank corruption and gay conspiracies in the Vatican. 

Those stories haven’t gone away, Allen say, but Pope Francis now dominates headlines about the Catholic Church.

The crowds attending audiences in St. Peter’s Square have, by some reports, tripled since Francis took office. 

Person of the Year

He attracted an estimated three million people to a mass at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janiero last summer, outdrawing even the Rolling Stones.

Time magazine chose him as Person of the Year, as did The Advocate, a LGBT publication. 

And yes, just like a rock star, he was the February cover story in Rolling Stone magazine.

But can a rock star Pope really revolutionize the Catholic Church?

Certainly Pope Francis is in many ways redefining what it is to be a modern pope. 

He refuses to live in the luxury of the papal apartments. He is often known to just pick up the phone and call people, offering sympathy and prayers. 

He kisses babies with the ease of a well-practiced politician and seems to truly enjoy the occasions when he’s caught in a crush of happy worshippers.  He is the new, friendly face of the Catholic Church – the Pope as pastor. 

'I'm just thrilled'

On a recent Sunday morning at Holy Rosary Church in Toronto, just mentioning his name evoked a smile.

“Oh, I’m just thrilled,” says one parishioner. "I think he’s brought new life to the church, he’s opened the windows.”

Pope Francis, who assumed the papacy a year ago, has been named the 'rock star Pope.' Reuters
“He’s come along at the right time,” offers another. "He’s making changes, and the changes are good.”

The obvious changes, though, seem to be more in tone and emphasis. 

Pope Francis has made it clear that the message of the church must be less about stern teachings around abortion and gay marriage, for example, and more often about caring and compassion, particularly for the poor. 

If Benedict XVI was seen as the church’s doctrinal enforcer, Francis has opened the church’s arms.

“Who am I to judge?” he offered in a conversation about homosexuality with journalists. Those words have been widely interpreted as a general welcome to all who, in the language of the church "seek God." 

Maybe not that different?

While Catholics have generally embraced the new, more informal papal style, there are some, particularly conservative Catholics, who worry that there may be confusion about what the church really stands for. 

“I think the reference to a rock star Pope is probably questionable,” says Richard Bastien. 

A director with the Catholic Civil Rights League in Ottawa, Bastien says Pope Francis has a different style but on the fundamental matters of faith, he’s very much in line with his predecessors.

So gay marriage, abortion, divorce, contraception, even women priests are not open to debate. 

Pope Francis has made that clear, says Bastien. 

He laughs at the suggestion that  might change. 

“The church has defended its teachings on sexual ethics for 2,000 years,” he notes.  

And he’s confident it will again.

Need for change

Nevertheless, Pope Francis has spoken bluntly about the need for change within the church.

He has been critical of ambitious, careerist priests whom he describes as vain and smarmy priest tycoons. 

And heads have rolled in the beautifully frescoed corridors of Vatican power.

He replaced the Secretary of State – the head of the Vatican government. He appointed a new team to oversee finances and clean up the Vatican bank. 

He brought in outside consultants to advise on accounting, management and communications.  And he established an eight-man Council of Cardinals to act as his personal advisers.

But on perhaps the most important issue, the one that has struck at the very heart of the church’s moral authority, Pope Francis has yet to take significant steps. 

Late last year, Francis announced a special commission would be set up to deal with the sexual abuse of children by priests. No one has been named to that commission, nor has its mandate been established.

'Why me?'

Brenda Brunelle, who lives in Windsor, Ont., was abused by a local priest when she was just 13 years old.

A devoted Catholic, she lived with the shame and anger all of her adult life. 

“All I wanted to know was: 'Why me?' ” she says. 

When finally as a grown woman she asked for a meeting with her abuser to help her heal, she was rebuffed. 

“And the last statement made to me,” she says, “was that when this particular priest dies, the Vicar General will walk with me to his graveside and assist me with closure at that time.”

That was five years ago and Brunelle hasn’t been back to church since. Closure for her now, she says can only come with real reform.

Children in the church to this day, she argues, are not safe.

She wants what she calls a clean sweep from top to bottom of the church hierarchy.

Be accountable

Abusing priests must be defrocked and those who’ve covered up the crime must also be held accountable, she says . 

“And stop using the word sexual abuse as a sin and start referring to it as the crime it is and quit holding themselves at a different standard just because they are holy men of God.”

Allen believes Pope Francis understands how serious the sex abuse scandal is for the church. 

“He gets it,” he says.

And he also warns that if the church is not seen to be “practising moral virtue in its own internal life, then it faces a pretty steep hill to climb in terms of getting its message across.”

Still, it’s often noted symbols matter in the Catholic faith. Sometimes style is substance. And Francis’s more welcoming friendly demeanour, his emphasis on caring for the poor, have gone some way toward restoring the church’s moral authority. 

Sense of opportunity

Pope Francis has opened up a sense of opportunity for the church, says Allen. 

There is what he calls a new conviction that the Catholic message will be heard in a very complex post- modern world.

“If that’s a revolution,” Allen says, “Pope Francis has already achieved it.” 


Even though Francis has signalled there is more change to come, this ancient and often mysterious institution, it is often said, measures change in centuries. 

While the Roman Catholic Church may be in transition or even upheaval, revolution seems too strong a word, even for a rock star Pope.


Alison Smith

Host World at Six

Alison Smith is host of CBC Radio's flagship news program, The World at Six, and is a senior correspondent for CBC News.