World·Analysis

Is Pope Francis signalling a Vatican shakeup?

As Pope Francis turns to the business of governing, some are wondering whether he is looking to implement a substantial shakeup of the Vatican bureacracy. Will he bring in some fresh faces or simply shift old ones around?

Speculation on who’s in, who’s out has Rome’s restaurants, cafés and bars all abuzz

Just as in secular politics, advancement in the church may be based on talent in many cases, but it’s also based on who you know; who you have befriended, or offended. (Paul Hanna/Reuters)

Over the last few days, Pope Francis has charmed the crowds in Rome, and much of the media. His personal charisma, humility and his "walkabouts" have signalled a new kind of pontificate. When Francis speaks, his messages are simple and direct.

He has talked about "a church which is poor and for the poor." He has described the church as a human institution, yet "her nature is not essentially political but spiritual." And during his inauguration mass, he acknowledged that as Pope, he has power, but says true power is in "service."

While he's not spoken publicly about governance issues, what he has said has set the stage for the kind of church he wants. Buried inside all his public speeches are stern messages for those within the church hierarchy.

Reform of what is widely regarded as a dysfunctional church hierarchy was a hot topic when the cardinals met before the conclave. Now, people are waiting for Pope Francis to get down to the unenviable business of governance. Speculation on who’s in and who’s out has Rome’s restaurants, cafés and bars all abuzz.

In his stern message to cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, Francis said, "Walking, building-constructing, professing: the thing, however, is not so easy, because in walking, in building, in professing, there are sometimes shakeups. There are movements that are not part of the path; there are movements that pull us back." People here in Rome are expecting some pretty substantial shakeups.

There’s a new Pope in town.

A big shakeup?

Francis has provisionally reappointed the heads of the curial departments. Provisional being the operative word, as he says he wants to pray and reflect before making permanent decisions. This should have some within the Curia thinking about brushing up their CVs.

Where Pope Benedict XVI often spoke of strengthening the church, Pope Francis is speaking about mercy and the need to "protect creation."

The new Pope is already shaking things up in the Vatican with his actions and words, but he can’t do it alone.

Just as a president or prime minister can put their personality into a government, so the Pope can nurture a certain culture within the church.

But even in the Vatican, no man is an island. Who Francis picks to help him will say a lot about the way he wants the church to work.

He’s shown he’s a deeply pastoral man. But his words suggest a deep understanding of how he needs to create reform, if the church as an institution is to regain its credibility. As he says, "to be ‘protectors, we also have to keep watch over ourselves."

A ‘spiritual’ church

As Pope Francis shook hands and exchanged greetings with monarchs and heads of state after his inauguration, he did so both as a religious leader, but also as the head of state of the Holy See. A state with some serious government problems, and a Pope called on, in part, to protect the church from itself.

As much as Pope Francis says he wants a "spiritual" church, Vatican circles are very deeply political places. Positions within the curial government are hard to come by; power and privileges are jealously guarded. Trying to convince the powerful to become "protectors," as he puts it, will be a struggle.

Just as in secular politics, advancement may be based on talent in many cases, but it’s also based on who you know; who you have befriended, or offended.

People here are cautious about what they say. In restaurants, they look up to see who has entered, and who might be overhearing their hushed conversation. A casual coffee can easily turn into a social minefield as people attempt to puzzle out each other’s papal politics.

Pope Francis will now need to combat this entrenched culture. Speaking to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, he said: "When one does not build on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency." This can be read as a warning that Francis thinks there’s a serious problem in the church hierarchy. And he plans to collect some solid rocks for his new government.

Pope as ‘protector’

The fallout continues from the so-called "Vatileaks" affair, in which documents were published showing a Curia plagued by infighting, egos and personalities. Some of the top people in the church’s current governance structure are those blamed for the failures under Benedict. So will Francis bring in new faces? Or shift old ones around?

Will he appoint (or reappoint) cardinals with long curial experience? Or will it be outsiders who come in?

It’s clear he plans to take action, as during his inauguration mass he focused on the concept of a protector, and described how St. Joseph was called on to be "the protector of the church." It’s not hard to imagine that he sees himself inheriting this responsibility. "Let us never forget," he said, "that authentic power is service, and that the pope, too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross."

As Pope Francis continues to speak, those in Vatican circles and the church hierarchy around the world will continue to perform a kind of exegesis on his texts, looking to see how the wind is blowing. But it’s already clear this Jesuit pope has a powerful message for the people he wants to help him define the church.

"Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down."

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