Analysis — Pope Francis’ plan for reform: Convert the church
Vatican City • As Pope Francis approaches the one-year mark of his papacy, his global flock and a fascinated public are starting to measure the changes he is making against the sky-high hopes for transforming an institution many thought impervious to change.
Every personnel move and every new proposal is being scrutinized for what it might indicate about the direction of the Catholic Church, what it might augur about possible adjustments to church teaching and whether the aspirations of so many will be fulfilled — or frustrated.
But as important as such structural and policy moves can be, church leaders and Vatican insiders say the 77-year-old Francis is focused on a more ambitious (and perhaps more difficult) goal: overhauling and upending the institutional culture of Catholicism.
Francis, they say, is bent on converting the church, as it were, so that the faith is positioned to flourish in the future no matter who follows him to the throne of St. Peter.
"Some in the Roman Curia" — the Vatican bureaucracy — "say, well, this pope is old so let’s wait a bit, and things will return to the way they were," said the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yanez, a fellow Argentine Jesuit, who heads the moral theology department at the Gregorian University in Rome.
"If this is the attitude, then his words and his reforms don’t mean anything. I think conversion is the most important thing, and that explains why Francis speaks every day, why he preaches every day. Some say that this pope talks and talks and talks but doesn’t do anything. But I think he is preparing the ground."
According to those familiar with his thinking, the pope seems to be pursuing three main strategies:
One: Leveling with the hierarchy
Sure, Pope Francis has charmed the world with his easygoing manner, his populist homilies and his affecting way of reaching out to the marginalized. But woe to those churchmen who have been used to life at the top and enjoy the view a bit too much.
In repeated broadsides at the culture of clericalism, Francis tells his fellow hierarchs that they are not to think of themselves as "a royal court," as he put it to his first batch of appointed cardinals.
That was just one in a series of blasts he issued in the days leading up to his first-year anniversary on March 13, reflecting an insistent theme of his young pontificate: Bishops are to lead by serving, not dominating. The centralized Curia, too, must not be "an inspector and inquisitor that no longer allows the action of the Holy Spirit and the development of the people of God."
Hierarchical "careerism" is "a form of cancer," Francis has said, comparing bishops who strut about in church finery to "peacocks." Instead, he wants pastors who act as shepherds and who "smell of the sheep." He does not want "airport bishops" who buzz around the world padding their résumés and preaching a doctrinaire gospel while living the good life. "Little monsters," he calls such clerics.
While more than a few of the Vatican’s old guard find Francis’ predications "annoying," as one put it privately, they nonetheless acknowledge that he includes himself in his critique.
"I am a sinner," as Francis put in a lengthy interview last summer. "This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner." And in his landmark exhortation published last November, he harped on the need for the conversion of the church: "Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy."
As potent and attractive as those words are, church insiders say Francis first needs time — years, not months — to appoint bishops who buy into his vision. That’s not to discount the fact that many bishops have been moved by his exhortations, and others are adjusting their behavior accordingly.
"How many BMWs do you see parked in the Vatican these days?" a well-connected American layman said recently as he surveyed the Roman scene, asking for anonymity to speak frankly. "You just don’t see the Gucci loafers anymore."
Two: Teaching Catholic leaders to talk, and trust
If there was a single, central dynamic driving the coalition of cardinals that elected Francis in last year’s conclave, it was the desire to put an end to the command-and-control style that characterized Rome’s management under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.