Essays - Summer 2014

4 Popes, 4 Saints, One New Guy

Perhaps you’ve heard the news from Rome. But what does it really have to do with the man from Assisi?

By Ingrid D. Rowland | June 9, 2014
Photo credit: European Union 2013 - European Parliament
Photo credit: European Union 2013 - European Parliament


In the very first minutes of his papacy, Francis greeted the crowd gathered beneath St. Peter’s Basilica with a disarming “Brothers and sisters, good evening.” As he emerged on the balcony of the enormous basilica, the rain stopped, the rain that had been pelting Rome all winter with out-of-season thunderstorms and monsoon-like torrential bursts. The first days of Pope Francis were gloriously sunny. It looked as if he had charmed Jupiter the Thunderer as quickly as he charmed the mortal crowds.

A little more than a year into his papacy, Francis has already made a powerful impression on Rome and the Catholic Church. Elected in the aftermath of the sudden resignation of Benedict XVI in February 2013, the Argentine from “the ends of the earth” had attracted millions of pilgrims to Rome even before more than a million visitors converged on the city on April 27, 2014, to celebrate the joint canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II.

The canonization was an extraordinary event in many respects, with two popes in attendance and two other recent popes raised to the status of saint, two radically different popes at that: Angelo Roncalli, the down-to-earth Italian papa buono who initiated the reforming Second Vatican Council in 1962, and Karol Wojtyla, the charismatic Pole who held office for almost 27 years. With crowds overflowing the streets leading to the Vatican and spilling over to several other public squares in Rome, Francis presided over a ceremony that managed to demonstrate both the antiquity of the institution he embodies and its infinite capacity for change. He did so, moreover, in a way that was orderly, tasteful, and solemn, and all this in the face of a crush of humanity greater than the entire population of ancient Rome, and a third that of the present-day city. As an expression of institutional resilience, the “day of the four popes” was a tour de force.

From that first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s, Francis has seemed to draw strength and reassurance from the comforting rhythms of Church ritual. (When Pope Benedict XVI revised the rules for liturgy in 2007, Cardinal Bergoglio, as Francis was then called, was one of the first bishops to restore a traditional Latin Mass.) Pope for an hour, still stunned by his sudden change in status, he led the enormous crowd in a collective recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, forging an instantaneous bond with his audience. The canonization also followed a time-honored sequence, Latin mixing with Polish, Italian, and Greek, accompanied by modern music and medieval chant, so that the larger picture of continuity overpowered the differences of detail. It was the strongest statement yet of the pope’s determination to lead by example, and by emphasizing what his flock shares rather than what divides it.

Papal elections are not exactly democratic, but they often follow the same alternating patterns as a democracy. No one group stays in power forever. In 2013, the Italian Conference of Bishops (CEI) “knew” that the experience of two successive non-Italian popes, a Pole and a German, would bring the cardinals back to more familiar (that is, Italian) ground after 35 years abroad. Thus, when smoke began to pour out of the Sistine Chapel’s chimney, indicating the election of a new pope, CEI’s secretary general, Mariano Crociata, circulated a message to the Vatican journalists’ pool: “The General Secretariat [of the CEI] expresses the feelings of the entire Italian Church in welcoming the news of Cardinal Angelo Scola’s election as Successor to Peter. … The Italian Church from this very moment promises unconditional reverence and obedience.”

It took just over an hour for the new pope to dress in the robes of his office, appear on the benediction loggia of St. Peter’s, and prove the general secretariat wrong. The mistake was more than a slip; it revealed an entire system of complacency and complicity.

From the end of World War II until a series of corruption scandals dissolved Italy’s major political parties in the early 1990s, the Italian Church maintained a close relationship with the Christian Democratic party, favorably impressed by its Catholic, anti-Communist stance (and correspondingly willing, with some courageous exceptions, to overlook its shady financial maneuverings and its ties to organized crime). With the disintegration of the Christian Democrats in 1994, the Italian bishops recognized similar values in the new Forza Italia party of Milanese tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and forged an alliance over the next 20 years that often went beyond simply professing shared anti-Communist convictions.

Cardinal Scola, archbishop of Milan, for all his undeniable qualities, was probably damaged as a candidate for pope by his close link to Roberto Formigoni, a former Catholic student activist who had entered mainstream politics under Berlusconi’s aegis. By the time of the conclave in March 2013, after nearly two decades as president of Lombardy (the equivalent of a state governor), Formigoni had been indicted for libel and corruption, tellingly immortalized in a brief bathing suit parading around the deck of a friend’s yacht with the self-satisfied grin of an Adonis and the body of an aging popinjay (one paparazzo photograph shows him leaping into the water feet first, holding his nose).

Furthermore, although John Paul II and Benedict XVI may have been foreigners, many of their high-level appointees were Italian, including two successive pontifical secretaries of state, Angelo Sodano, who served John Paul, and Tarcisio Bertone, a longtime associate of Benedict’s whose appointment surprised and offended Sodano (he would not relinquish his apartment in the Apostolic Palace to his successor for nearly a year). Bertone, a singularly undiplomatic diplomat, was an evident target of the campaign known as Vatileaks, which involved a series of confidential documents from Benedict’s office that were copied surreptitiously and passed on to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi beginning in January 2012. Papal butler Paolo Gabriele was convicted in a Vatican court for the thefts in October 2012 and pardoned by the pontiff just before Christmas (though his exile from the Vatican still stands). The breach of the pope’s privacy was the most shocking aspect of the affair; it was clear enough by any number of public actions that Bertone had been quick to amass power but slow to grasp the seriousness of problems like the Church’s long tolerance of pedophile priests and the questionable dealings of the Vatican bank.

The bank, the Institute for Religious Works, housed in a 15th-century fortification tower next to the Vatican Palace, had aroused suspicion for decades. A series of corrupt Italian prime ministers, culminating in Berlusconi, gave the Vatican bank little incentive to change its ways, but the world economic crisis of 2008, the growing power of the European Union, and Berlusconi’s own increasingly erratic behavior began to fray international—and even Italian—patience. The arrival of Prime Minister Mario Monti in 2011 reinforced European Union pressure on the Vatican bank to make its operations more transparent. The embarrassment of Vatileaks made a cleanup of the bank imperative. Benedict XVI appointed a team of three cardinals to investigate the incident. They submitted their final report, nearly 300 pages long, on December 17, 2012, five days before the pope pardoned his butler for precipitating the scandal. In February 2013, Pope Benedict announced that he would resign his office. (Since becoming Benedict’s successor, Francis has served notice to the bank to clean up its dealings.)

Although Benedict XVI cited old age as his reason for resigning, it has become increasingly clear that at least two other important factors prompted the decision. One was the problematic presence of Bertone; in response to calls for the secretary of state’s resignation, Benedict would reply, “We are an old pope.” Bertone was a long-time friend, probably a disappointment, but difficult to dislodge. More problematic still was the Vatican’s relationship to money, a challenge that a man in his mid-80s no longer felt strong enough to address. One reporter for the newspaper Corriere della Sera suggested not long ago that Benedict must have resigned with a fair degree of confidence that Cardinal Bergolio, who had been his runner-up in 2005, would be his likely successor. The swiftness of the conclave of 2013 lends credence to that idea. Benedict may have erred in his assessment of Cardinal Bertone, but he probably knew what the Church had in Cardinal Bergoglio. Evidently Bergoglio’s colleagues had already regarded him as an eloquent representative, a distinctive, valid voice within a complex organization.

Like the Italian Conference of Bishops, most of the Vatican insiders who reported on the conclave, known as vaticanisti, were too far inside to see events broadly, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio appeared on few lists of leading papabili. Hence his election probably surprised the powers that were and the vaticanisti more than it did the general public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

The choice of the name Francis was new for a pope, but it was also a singularly reassuring name for most of the people when they first heard it, the final word in the ritual Latin proclamation announcing the new pope. Francis of Assisi is one of the most beloved saints of the Christian church, the official patron of animals, of the environment, and (together with Catherine of Siena) of Italy. The legends that surround the “poor man of Assisi” tell of a kind, gentle fellow who preached to the birds when no one else would listen, who tamed a marauding wolf, who bound himself to Lady Poverty as his bride, and who engaged the sultan of Egypt himself in long discussions about religion.

The real Francis was a more conflicted character. Born in 1181 or 1182 to a successful merchant, Francis spent his youth in the company of young aristocrats, nurturing chivalric ideals that were slightly above his real social station. His knightly career was a disaster; in 1201, he was taken prisoner in a raid against neighboring Perugia and held for nearly a year. After his return, he fell seriously ill in 1204 and suffered a spiritual crisis. He made one more attempt to live as a knight, setting out for service in southern Italy in 1205, but a vision prompted him to return to Assisi. Now taking Jesus as his example, he resolved to live as a poor wanderer, showing compassion to outcasts and lepers, repairing dilapidated churches, urging people to believe in God and in the meaning of Jesus’ life and self-sacrifice. Ridiculed at first, he began to draw increasing numbers of followers, male and female, from every stratum of his hierarchical society. He also attracted the support of his local bishop, who arranged a visit to the pope in 1209: the first step toward establishing a new religious order. His expedition to the sultan in 1219 was an attempt to end the Crusades peacefully by simply converting the monarch to Christianity. The sultan stayed loyal to Islam, but he found Francis a fascinating interlocutor. In 1220, on returning to Italy, Francis stepped aside as head of his “Friars Minor” (Little Brothers) and devoted himself to travel throughout Italy, until his failing health confined him to the area around Assisi. By the time Francis died in 1226, his movement numbered in the thousands, with missions in Europe and the Holy Land. He was proclaimed a saint only two years after his death.

In his first public audience as pope, Francis said that he took the name thinking of the saint from Assisi. As the voting in the conclave had turned in his direction, he recalled, Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes had turned to him and whispered, “Don’t forget the poor”; the thought of Saint Francis followed naturally. But not everyone was reassured by having a pope named Francis in charge of the Vatican. Renouncing wealth for a life of wandering and poverty was as disconcerting in money-mad 2013 as in 1206, when, again according to his legend, Francis stripped himself of his last fine clothes and handed them back to his father. There have been furious movements of money and real estate in Rome in recent months: the Vatican is one of Rome’s chief landlords. Little is said overtly, but the rumors fly. Clearly, Pope Francis means business, but not business as usual.

His simplicity can be as startling as the simplicity of the original Francis. As the conclave broke up, the new pope got back on the shuttle bus with his colleagues and returned to his two-room suite at the Casa Santa Marta, the residence that John Paul II had built inside the Vatican in 1996 to house visiting clergy and delegates to the conclave. He has never left. The Casa Santa Marta’s undistinguished cuisine, rumored to be one of the stimuli for bringing modern-day conclaves to a swift end, is his daily fare; he has said that he needs the constant presence of human company to keep him sane and in touch with his congregation. His eagerness to greet the poor, the sick, and the young has become legendary. On his birthday, Francis invited three homeless men for breakfast, one of whom brought along his beloved dog. The papal almoner really does distribute alms as well as prepare apostolic blessings (parchment documents that cost petitioners between 25 and 40 euros); on the Friday before Easter, as Francis made his way around the Colosseum, his almoner went down the line of homeless people bedded down outside the Termini train station, giving out Easter cards containing bills amounting to 40 or 50 euros. The evening at Termini apparently ended in a joyous party.

All of these activities follow the pattern of Francis of Assisi, with one significant difference. Accepting the papacy means accepting a position of supreme authority. Saint Francis, as a humble imitator of Christ, found leading an organization agonizingly difficult. He was happy to inspire members of his Order of Friars Minor by example and by exhortation, and in the early days he inducted each one of them personally into the band of brothers. But when his followers grew to thousands and the demands of running a large religious order warred with his pursuit of humility, he finally withdrew from heading his own congregation. And for all the novelty of his ideas, Saint Francis faithfully supported the institutional Church. Conscious, perhaps, of his own youthful ambitions, he discouraged his brothers from aspiring to improve their level of education or their social station. (Ironically, three of the most aggressive, authoritative popes of the Italian Renaissance, Sixtus IV, Julius II, and Sixtus V, were Franciscans.)

Pope Francis belongs not to the Franciscans but to the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, an order dedicated to education and intense intellectual activity. Pope John Paul II, because of his antipathy to communism, promoted conservative religious orders like Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ at the expense of the papacy’s traditional defenders, the Jesuits, but that shift of favor did not make the Jesuits go away, nor did they cease to represent an important segment of Catholic belief. One of Cardinal Scola’s immediate predecessors as bishop of Milan, Carlo Maria Martini, was a Jesuit highly respected by John Paul II and Benedict XVI; John Paul appointed another Jesuit, Bergoglio himself, as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and cardinal in 2001. Bergoglio is now the first Jesuit ever to hold Catholicism’s highest office.

Some members of the order declared that Pope Francis should not have accepted his office because it challenged their ideal of humility. Furthermore, the order’s famous fourth vow (beyond the triad of poverty, chastity, and obedience) entails promising to serve the pope on a mission anywhere in the world—and how can a Jesuit pope serve himself? Yet cardinals are thought to vote in conclave at the bidding of the Holy Spirit: a difficult authority to contest. In any case, Pope Francis had no trouble asserting himself from the very beginning, shunning the gold cross, the red capelet known as the mozzetta, and the red kangaroo-skin shoes that had been made up for the new pope by the papal tailor Gammarelli; he held to his old pectoral cross with the Good Shepherd and the big brown orthopedic shoes that are so kind to his bunions. His pontifical signet ring is gold plate on silver rather than solid gold. His coat of arms is the same one he chose as cardinal.

Just before the canonization ceremonies, six months after stepping down as secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone ordered construction work on his new apartment in the Vatican, next door to the Casa Santa Marta. After dislodging the widow of the former head of the Vatican Gendarmerie, he is combining two apartments into one with a total square footage of 6,500—not counting the terrace. The pope’s apartment is one-tenth that size; needless to say, Francis was not impressed by Bertone’s move or its timing. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, when Francis denounced “unctuous, sumptuous, presumptuous” prelates in a homily on Good Friday, he meant the former secretary of state. (According to Bertone, their relations are cordial.)

More often, as in discussing homosexuality, Francis has been likely to say, “Who am I to judge?” Individual compassion and thoughtful dialogue have been his way, rather than swift doctrinal change. The primary purpose of service in the Society of Jesus, according to its 16th-century founder, was “to comfort souls,” and this same overarching goal seems to guide the actions of the new pontiff. The rapid canonization of John Paul II has probably put a damper on investigation of financial dealings during his reign that included at least two scandals, but the real significance of John Paul’s papacy lies in his positive actions, and these are what his successor has chosen to stress.

Yet by combining John Paul’s elevation to sainthood with that of John XXIII, Francis has managed to condition the nature of John Paul’s potent legacy. By creating a pointed association between both popes and the reforms of Vatican II, Francis smoothed out a contested history in which he also implicitly involved Benedict XVI, present in the unprecedented but surprisingly comfortable role of pope emeritus. Francis connected the four popes, two living, two dead, as part of a common history extending back to Saint Peter, whose place of burial set the stage for the gigantic ceremony. He waived the traditional requirement of a miracle to prove the sainthood of Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII); as one of the commentators on Italian television noted, the Second Vatican Council was miracle enough. Pope John was also the first pope to confront, critically, the long Christian tradition of anti-Semitism (a policy in which John Paul II followed him). In effect, then, the new pope is reshaping the meaning of sainthood while adhering to an archaic procedure that included the presentation of body parts as relics of the two saints—some blood from Wojtyla and a piece of Roncalli’s skin—for veneration.

In February, the pope told one cardinal that if he had been elected in 2005 he would have taken the name John XXIV, in honor of the papa buono. In becoming Francis, he has chosen a different path. It is hard not to think of him in connection with another saint named Francis: Francis Xavier, the Basque aristocrat who met Ignatius Loyola in Paris and helped him found the Society of Jesus in 1534. As the first Jesuit missionary, Saint Francis Xavier sailed to India, Indonesia, and Japan before he died in China. And Saint Francis also traveled abroad, where he had those conversations with the sultan. Like both of these figures, Pope Francis is a great talker. He is also a great listener, who phones people out of the blue, mighty and humble alike.

In Rome, the locals recognize how profoundly Francis has upset some of the arrangements, political and financial, that the Church and its governing Curia had taken for granted for so long, and with a world-weariness born of millennia, they worry about his safety. (Francis has also denounced organized crime in no uncertain terms.) It is a sign of the affection they feel for him—for his simple manner, his expressive face, and his stubborn insistence on meeting them, like another Francis, one on one. He may have come from the other side of the world, but they have taken him to heart.

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