Tradition is so central to the Catholic Church that Cardinal Timothy Dolan recently remarked that it should be always be spelled with a capital “T”: Tradition. As a result, the fifty-six hundred accredited journalists in Rome, as well as millions of Catholics around the world, have spent much of the past five days since Pope Francis’s election parsing the large and small ways in which he has varied the usual routine. Much was made of his first words when he appeared at the window of St. Peter’s—“Buona sera” (“Good evening”), a simple human greeting rather than a specifically papal or religious expression, as well as of the last words that closed his Sunday homily: “Buon pranzo” (“Have a good lunch”). There has, however, been little question that Pope Francis, the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, has been trying to send a series of messages since his selection: his decision to wear a plain white priest’s cassock instead of cardinal or papal robes, his request that the Argentine clergy not come to his inauguration and instead donate the travel funds to the poor. Some of the messages have been more explicit. In speaking to the press two days after his election, he said that he wanted “a church that is poor and for the poor.” He has reportedly annoyed parts of the traditional Vatican bureaucracy by pointedly ignoring the prepared remarks drawn up by his would-be handlers and speaking off the cuff, with great simplicity and even a sense of humor. He even appeared to violate the rule against discussing the internal workings of the papal conclave when he spoke to the journalists:
I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes—a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two-thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said, “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi.
Then, joking, he said that some of his fellow cardinals suggested he should take the name of Clement XV in order to “pay back Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order.”
The inauguration, though it kept closer to the script, was not without similar touches. Francis made a couple of trips around the piazza in the so-called Popemobile, a kind of customized white jeep or golf cart the Popes have used in the past thirty-five years to circulate around the large piazza. After the assassination attempt on John Paul II, a heavy bulletproof plexiglass sheet was added to the front of the vehicle for better security. Francis dispensed with the shield and even stepped down from the Popemobile to embrace a severely disabled man in the crowd.
The messages of his first two homilies—the one he pronounced at the Sunday Angelus service and the one at today’s inauguration ceremony—were short, simple, and highly inclusive. He recounted the story of the adultress from the New Testament on Sunday: “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” He quoted an old woman who had told him that without mercy the world would not exist. “I asked her if she had taught theology at the Gregorian University,” he said, joking about the Jesuit university in Rome.
As I left St. Peter’s Square today, I ran into a group of Franciscan friars from Southern Italy. They were very satisfied with the proceedings. “Very Franciscan,” one of them said. “Simple, sober, clear. The homily was only about seven and a half minutes and contained a strong but simple message of love and faith.” “That’s what we need,” a second friar chimed in, “because many people are losing faith, also because of the disgusting sins of the Church itself.”
The homily was dedicated to the rather humble figure of St. Joseph, the carpenter husband of the Virgin Mary who, faced with the almost incomprehensible miracle of Mary’s immaculate conception, takes mother and child away to safety:
Joseph is the custodian, he protects Mary and Jesus…. We must remember that service is power. He does so not out of weakness but out of strength. We must remember that service is power. We must be custodians, caring for others, caring for the Church but also for those outside the Church, stewards of the environment and all of creation.
Residents in the St. Peter’s area noted that both the number of spectators and the enthusiasm for the new pope have been higher this year than in 2005, when Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI.
The apparent gamble of Francis’s papacy is to bring about a change in the Church’s attitude and behavior without (in all likelihood) a substantial change in doctrine. Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made it clear that although many things in the Catholic world are subject to change—“Twenty or thirty years, you would have never seen women teaching theology in a Catholic university, now there are many”—doctrine is not one of them: “There cannot be women priests, that’s impossible. It’s established doctrine.”
Similarly, in the Sunday sermon at Rome’s Pontifical North American College, following Francis’s inauguration, Cardinal Francis George, the Archbishop of Chicago, adopted a somewhat combative tone toward America’s “post-Freudian culture,” which insists on seeing “celibacy as a threat.” He also criticized the press and secular society, which “judge the Church as good as long as it does social services and bad to the extent that it makes truth claims.”
With a much gentler tone, Pope Francis, in his remarks to the press, alluded to the difficulty the secular world has in understanding the imperatives of the Church. “The Church,” he said, “is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual: the Church is the people of God, the holy people of God making its way to encounter Jesus Christ. Only from this perspective can a satisfactory account be given of the Church’s life and activity.”
Many were struck by the skill and delicacy with which he alluded to the fact that many in the press were not his natural constituents: “Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!”
But this should not be mistaken for a retreat on matters of traditional doctrine. The initial impression is that what Francis and others in the Church have in mind is a Church that is more pastoral, more attentive to the needs of the poor than its traditional prerogatives, and more forthcoming with the outside world, but no less firm about issues—whether gay marriage, sexual morality, or the contraception provisions in Obama’s healthcare reforms—that have divided many Catholics. Pope Francis is clearly enjoying a honeymoon period; the conflicts are yet to come, and we will see whether the Church’s new tone will change the nature of the debate.
Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty.
As published at The New Yorker