On most Wednesdays, the Pope gives a general audience, and this one was packed. It was a balmy October morning, and more than a hundred thousand pilgrims, tourists, and Romans had funnelled into St. Peter’s Square. It was the first of three large gatherings Pope Francis presided over that week for a celebration of the family during the Catholic Church’s “Year of Faith.”
Wooden railings imposed order in the square. I was about thirty yards from the Pope. In front of me were a pair of Vatican ushers in white tie and tails, several clergy, a short man in a yarmulke, and a handsome couple holding hands. Beyond them, Francis, seventy-six years old, in his stark-white cassock and skullcap, seemed energized by the festive crowd. A large man with a ready smile, he read from a brief text in Italian, but with fervor. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?” The throng was silent, listening carefully. After Francis spoke, others summarized the remarks in various languages. Then a line of prelates approached his chair.
Now the prelates were gone, and Francis, with guards at a discreet distance, moved along the railing, greeting the people. The couple in the front row were in their thirties, tall, and dressed in dark clothing. Unlike others at the railing, who were waving and calling, “Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!,” they held back. But when Francis turned to them the woman leaned forward with such gravity that the Pope took notice and stopped. Tears streaked her face. Francis reached for her hand, which she took as license to put her mouth by his ear. She whispered something. Francis looked startled, drew back a bit, then turned to her partner. The Pope embraced him, then drew the woman in. They stood like that for a while, the couple enveloped in the arms of the Bishop of Rome. Then Francis placed his hands on the man’s head. The man’s shoulders shook slightly. The Pope made a sign of the cross in the air above them and moved on.
As the crowd dispersed, I approached the couple. The man was weeping. The woman told me, “My husband has a brain tumor for the last four and a half years. He’s getting worse and worse. We came just for this, for his blessing, whatever it is—physical, emotional, or spiritual.” She told me that they were from Argentina, as is Francis. “I feel very near him. His look, his voice, everything is near to my heart. But surely not because he is from Argentina.”
Once, I felt that way myself, about another Pope. This was 1960, and I was seventeen, aiming to be an Air Force officer, like my father, a major general. My family was granted a private audience with Pope John XXIII. My parents, my grandmother, my four brothers, and I made our way up the Bernini staircase to the papal apartments in Vatican City. My father was in uniform, two stars on each shoulder. My mother and grandmother were draped in black mantillas. We were shown into a small, high-ceilinged room with red fabric walls; an elevated throne stood at one end. A monsignor lined us up. Then Pope John walked in, grinning, with outstretched hands. He was short and stout—all in white, although his shoes were red. His eyes danced. With a cry of “Bravo!,” he clapped, saluting my parents for their large Catholic family. Pope John, who was born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, in Lombardy, was one of fourteen children, a sharecropper’s son.
- I was a tall boy, and the Pope reached up to my shoulders to pull me down. He put his mouth by my ear, his cheek against mine. I felt his whiskers and could smell his soap. He spoke to me in Italian—or was it Latin?—in an intimate whisper. Years later, I would look back on my reaction as naïve, yet in Pope John’s arms I felt the embrace of God. I had no way to grasp the meaning of John’s coming ecumenical council—the gathering of bishops known as Vatican II, which met in four sessions between 1962 and 1965 and which would reform the Church—but for me he played a pivotal role. Before long, I abandoned my Air Force dream and entered the seminary, to become a Catholic priest. I left the priesthood after five years, but I never stopped being a Pope John XXIII Catholic, which, given the reactionary slant of subsequent papacies, meant long decades of internal exile. Lately, the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.
“Who am I to judge?” With those five words, spoken in late July in reply to a reporter’s question about the status of gay priests in the Church, Pope Francis stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of Popes and bishops. This gesture of openness, which startled the Catholic world, would prove not to be an isolated event. In a series of interviews and speeches in the first few months after his election, in March, the Pope unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world. Repeatedly, he argued that the Church’s purpose was more to proclaim God’s merciful love for all people than to condemn sinners for having fallen short of strictures, especially those having to do with gender and sexual orientation. His break from his immediate predecessors—John Paul II, who died in 2005, and Benedict XVI, the traditionalist German theologian who stepped down from the papacy in February—is less ideological than intuitive, an inclusive vision of the Church centered on an identification with the poor. From this vision, theological and organizational innovations flow. The move from rule by non-negotiable imperatives to leadership by invitation and welcome is as fundamental to the meaning of the faith as any dogma.
Of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, about forty-one per cent live in Latin America. Catholicism has declined in Europe and the United States, but the pews of churches throughout the developing world are crowded. The election by the College of Cardinals of the first Latin-American Pope is a signal of the Church’s demographic pivot. Francis’s place of origin alone would make him a historic figure, but the statements he has made, and the example he has set, with gestures of modesty and compassion, show a man determined to realign the vast institution with the core message of Jesus.
Late last month, Francis issued the first major declaration of his pontificate, an “apostolic exhortation,” a long document addressed to Catholics which covers a range of issues. Titled “The Joy of the Gospel” and reflecting Francis’s style—there is no pontifical “we”—the exhortation is unrelentingly positive in tone. Francis writes, “We want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world.”
In an interview with Antonio Spadaro, S.J., of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, in August (later published in English in the magazine America), Francis elaborated his thinking about homosexuals. Benedict had defended the “dignity” of all peoples, including homosexuals, but called homosexual acts “an intrinsic moral evil.” Saying that “the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder,” he barred the admission of gay men to seminaries, even if they were celibate, and denounced the idea of gay marriage. Francis hasn’t altered the impossibility of gay marriage in the Church, but his tone is very different. “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” he said. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.” He continued, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods.”
John Paul and Benedict used the Catholic tradition as a bulwark against the triple threat of liberalism, relativism, and secularism. In fact, Benedict, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, has been the era’s chief sentinel of orthodoxy. But Francis views the Church as a field hospital after a battle. “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful,” he said. “It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.”
This change in course was not to be expected from Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He was said to have been runner-up to Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave, but was not seen as a figure of innovation. Upon his election to the papacy, the Times described him as “a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues.” As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio criticized government initiatives to legalize gay marriage and to loosen restrictions on abortion in Argentina, leading President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to accuse him of “ideological malfeasance.” In 2010, when Bergoglio denounced same-sex-marriage legislation as “a maneuver by the devil,” Kirchner said, “Bergoglio’s position is medieval.”
Recently, Francis has sounded anything but medieval. He seemed to reverse long-set Catholic attitudes, if not actual doctrines, when he told Spadaro, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.” In an early-morning homily in the Vatican hostel where he lives, he anticipated traditionalists’ objections, saying, “Not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” For Francis, the Church’s purpose is not to bring God to the world but simply to emphasize God’s presence—already there.
Francis violated a set code of Catholic ethical and philosophical discourse when, in an open letter to the prominent Italian journalist and atheist Eugenio Scalfari, in September, he wrote, “I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers. . . . Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” When Spadaro asked Francis about “the great changes in society, as well as the way human beings are reinterpreting themselves,” Francis got up to retrieve his well-thumbed breviary. He read from a fifth-century saint’s writings on the laws governing progress: “Even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time.” Then Francis commented, “So we grow in the understanding of the truth. . . . There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”
The first clue to the nature of the new Pope was his choice of name—an emphatic echo of St. Francis of Assisi. The thirteenth-century saint is associated with three things: love for creation, as reflected in his legendary ability to commune with animals; commitment to peace, which is said to have prompted his mediating intervention with Muslims during the Crusades; and care for the poor. (After the last round of voting for the papacy, a Brazilian cardinal whispered to Bergoglio, “Don’t forget the poor.”)
As Pope, Francis has simplified the Renaissance regalia of the papacy by abandoning fur-trimmed velvet capes, choosing to live in a two-room apartment instead of the Apostolic Palace, and replacing the papal Mercedes with a Ford Focus. Instead of the traditional red slip-ons, Francis wears ordinary black shoes. He declined to order a new set of fine tableware from Leone Limentani, the high-end Roman porcelain company that, since 1870, has supplied every Pope from Pius IX to Benedict XVI with crest-embossed table settings. I visited the shop, where a proprietor told me with a shrug, “Pope Francis has not ordered a new ring—why should he order new dishes?” Yet Francis didn’t criticize the choices of other prelates. “He makes changes without attacking people,” a Jesuit official told me. In his interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis said, “My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people, and from reading the signs of the times.”
St. Francis is said to have declared, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.” A couple of weeks after his election, the new Pope went to the Casal del Marmo jail, a juvenile detention center on Rome’s outskirts. On Holy Thursday, Jesus’ washing of the feet of the twelve apostles is reënacted in Catholic churches all over the world. Popes typically perform the rite at St. Peter’s or at the magnificent Basilica of St. John Lateran, about four miles from the Vatican. The Pope usually bends for a token swipe at the feet of twelve selected priests. But at Casal del Marmo, Francis knelt on the cold stone floor and put his white skullcap aside. He washed, dried, and kissed the feet of twelve young inmates, some of them bearing tattoos. Two were Muslim. More pointedly, in violation of Church tradition, two of the apostolic stand-ins were women. When one of the inmates asked the Pope why he had come to them, he said, “Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”
In his discussions with Spadaro, Francis made clear his affinity for John XXIII, the most liberal of modern Popes: “John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the Church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension.” Francis continued, “Many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later.”
- Shortly before I left Boston for Rome, I saw Paul Farmer, the Harvard anthropologist and physician who, for twenty-five years, has worked with the poor in Haiti, Peru, and Rwanda. Raised Catholic, Farmer was inspired by the egalitarian Catholic political movement called liberation theology, and recently published a book with its founder, Gustavo Gutiérrez. I asked Farmer what he made of the Pope’s Holy Thursday display at the prison. Farmer shrugged, and said, “If it’s just for show, I say keep showing it.”
Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., was appointed the director of the press office of the Holy See near the start of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, so he has been explaining Vatican policies for more than seven years. Early in his papacy, Benedict gave a speech that insulted Islam. He reinstated the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, brought back a Good Friday ritual that includes a denigrating reference to Jews, and issued a list of “more grave crimes” that seemed to equate the ordination of women with sexual abuse of children by priests. The Vatican was often having to clarify its positions.
I met Lombardi in a spartan room in a grand Mussolini-era building just outside St. Peter’s Square. Lombardi is a dark-eyed, silver-haired man of seventy-one, who looks as if he could be an Italian film director. I asked what his life had been like since Benedict stepped down. Lombardi broke into a broad smile. Then he said, “We experienced for years—and for good reason, also—that the Church said, ‘No! This is not the right way! This is against the commandments of God!’ The negative aspect of the announcement . . . this was in my personal experience one of the problems.” Father Lombardi and I are almost the same age. In his earnest good will and kindliness, he struck me as the priest I would have liked to become. He said, “The people thought I always had a negative message for them. I am very happy that, with Francis, the situation has changed.” He laughed. “Now I am at the service of a message . . . of love and mercy.” He laughed again.
A member of the press corps in Rome told me that during the Benedict years Father Lombardi, when addressing reporters, was bothered by a persistent nervous cough. The cough is no longer in evidence.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires in 1936, the first of five children. His father, an immigrant from northern Italy, was a bookkeeper. As a teen-ager, Bergoglio attended a vocational school, trained to be a chemical technician, and eventually found work at a Buenos Aires laboratory. “I had an extraordinary boss there,” he later recalled. “Esther Balestrino de Careaga, a Paraguayan woman and Communist sympathizer.” She took young Jorge Bergoglio under her wing, ushering him into adulthood. “I owe a huge amount to that great woman.” She taught him the discipline of work, yet was unrelentingly positive. “I loved her very much.”
Bergoglio left the laboratory and at twenty-one began to train for the priesthood. He became a Jesuit novice, embarking on the intellectually demanding course of Jesuit formation that typically involves a dozen or more years of expansive study, teaching, and spiritual discipline. The Jesuit founder, Ignatius Loyola, had been a soldier before his conversion, and a spirit of military rigidity, expressly at the service of the Pope, was traditionally a mark of the order. A man who chose the Jesuits over other ways of being a priest was embarking on a harder path. Among Bergoglio’s influences was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, a friend whom Bergoglio happily recalled as “an agnostic who said the Our Father every night because he had made a promise to his mother.”
Through the sixties, Bergoglio studied Catholic theology just as the Second Vatican Council was upending the life of the Church. For Catholicism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the arrival of liberal democracy had each posed unresolved threats, but Vatican II was the great turning toward the modern world. As the Church, in John XXIII’s image, threw its windows wide open, the Gospel was read anew as a demand for justice and peace. “In this age which boasts of its atomic power,” John wrote in his 1963 encyclical, “Pacem in Terris,” “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.” Theology left the classroom, and clergy left the sacristy for the street.
Throughout Latin America, Vatican II sparked a severe crisis, as a reactionary Church hierarchy, aligned with oligarchs and dictators, was suddenly challenged by priests, nuns, and grassroots “base communities” that took the council as a mandate for social change. Liberation theology, developed by priests like Gutiérrez, of Peru, and Leonardo Boff, of Brazil, held up Jesus Christ as a critic of unjust social and economic structures and articulated a Gospel mandate for “the preferential option for the poor.” In Argentina, a left-right civil war was brewing, and Catholics found themselves on both sides of the conflict. To the oligarchs and their allies in the hierarchy, the religious critique seemed all too political. Some Catholic leftists threw in with revolutionaries, although most embraced nonviolence. The anti-Soviet paranoia of the era made it easy to see the movement as influenced more by Karl Marx than by Jesus Christ. Archbishop Hélder Câmara, of Brazil, famously captured the tension, saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
Soon after Bergoglio was made a full-fledged—“professed”—Jesuit, in 1973, he was named Provincial Superior for Argentina, which meant he was responsible for supervising all Jesuit schools, parishes, and missions. At thirty-six, he was exceptionally young for such a position. He served as Provincial between 1973 and 1979, a span that overlapped with the so-called Dirty War, in which Argentina’s far-right military junta murdered many thousands of people. One of those who were arrested was the daughter of his early mentor, Esther de Careaga.
The story of Bergoglio and de Careaga is recounted in Paul Vallely’s indispensable biography, “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” which was published in August. Bergoglio’s former boss became active with a group of mothers advocating for the disappeared. When her daughter was freed and fled Argentina, de Careaga refused to abandon her work for the victims of the junta. Fearing arrest, and knowing that even the books in her house would incriminate her, she turned to her old friend. Bergoglio went to her house and took away the books, including “Das Kapital,” which he hid in a Jesuit library. Working at a church with other mothers of the disappeared, de Careaga was kidnapped by a death squad. Like so many, she was dropped from a helicopter into the sea. When her corpse washed ashore, Bergoglio had her buried in the garden of the church where she’d been seized.
By Bergoglio’s admission, he was not prepared for the challenges of exercising authority in such a tumultuous context. Liberation theology, with its questioning of authority, was a particular challenge to the Jesuit order, which had always defined itself around the vow of obedience. As the Provincial, Bergoglio tried to rein in Jesuits who had embraced a profound solidarity with the poor. He ordered two priests, Father Francisco Jalics and Father Orlando Yorio, to stop living and working in the Buenos Aires villas miserias, or slums. (Bergoglio has claimed that the instructions came from Rome.) They disobeyed. As to what followed, accounts differ to this day. But the defiance of the priests seems to have angered Bergoglio, who recently criticized himself, saying, “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”
Bergoglio’s conflict with the priests escalated, apparently to the point of their being threatened with expulsion from the Jesuits, whether by the Provincial himself or by authorities in Rome. (Bergoglio, in a 2010 interview, said the priests were preparing to establish a new religious order, effectively resigning from the Jesuits.) In March, 1976, a military coup overthrew the government of Argentina. The junta began targeting left-wing activists like Jalics and Yorio. Their conflict with the Jesuit Provincial, and their uncertain religious status, may have been part of what sparked the junta’s move against them. (Bergoglio says that he offered them the chance to come live in the society’s Provincial house.) In May, Jalics and Yorio, along with several others, were arrested by the death squads. The priests thought that Bergoglio had betrayed them; by his account, he went to work at once trying to secure their release. “The very night I learned they had been kidnapped, I set the ball rolling,” he said. The people with whom Jalics and Yorio were arrested were murdered; the two priests were brutally tortured and finally released in October. Bergoglio’s intervention may have saved them, but, in the words of a friend, he has since “constantly reproached himself for not doing enough.”
Yorio died in 2000, five years after publishing a book in which he claimed that Bergoglio had informed the military of the priests’ activities. Jalics is still a Jesuit, living in Germany. After the papal conclave, he denied that Bergoglio had betrayed him and Yorio, but others in Argentina are not convinced of the Pope’s innocence. Vallely concludes that he “should have seen the danger in which he was placing his two priests. Bergoglio behaved recklessly and has been trying to atone for his behavior ever since.” Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his defense of human rights in Argentina, said after the papal election, “There were bishops that were accomplices to the dictatorship, but Bergoglio was not one of them,” though he added, “I think he lacked the courage to accompany our struggle for human rights in the most difficult times.”
The years of the Dirty War form the general ground of the Pope’s striking self-criticism: his experience, one Jesuit told me, was “searing.” After leaving office as Provincial, Bergoglio was rector of a Jesuit seminary for a time, then worked on a dissertation for a degree in theology. He was sent to a Jesuit house of studies in Córdoba, Argentina, as spiritual director, yet these were wilderness years for him. He told Spadaro that in Córdoba he “lived a time of great interior crisis.” In an earlier interview, he had confided, “I had to learn from my errors along the way because, to tell you the truth, I made hundreds of errors. Errors and sins.” He told Spadaro bluntly, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech.”
Whatever Bergoglio made of liberation theology during his time as a Jesuit authority, he came to embody its spirit after he was named a bishop, in 1992. “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor,” he declared in his first week as Pope, an attitude that has marked him since his fresh start as a bishop in Buenos Aires. That he was tapped to be bishop was unusual for a Jesuit, since the order discourages its members from holding ecclesiastical office, and has over the centuries been embroiled in political disputes that mainly kept the hugely influential group on the margins of Church power. Kings and at least one Pope periodically sought to stamp out the Jesuits, and in some places succeeded.
By the time Bergoglio was named a cardinal, in 2001, his simplicity of style had already set him apart from other prelates. He preferred a small apartment to a palatial residence and travelled by public transportation instead of chauffeured car. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he encouraged his best priests to live in the slums, joining them for Mass and often walking through the shantytowns. While he was a critic of the government on questions like abortion and gay marriage, he also was strident in his denunciations of neoliberal economic policies that condemned many to abject poverty. His attention to the poor completed the decades-long transformation that finally drew the gaze of his fellow-cardinals to Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
- When the papal conclave convened, in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising resignation, Vatican watchers thought they knew what to expect. Between them, John Paul and Benedict had appointed every voting member of the College of Cardinals. There are two hundred cardinals, of whom a hundred and seventeen were under eighty and therefore eligible to vote when the papal election was called. There seemed to be no way that the barque of St. Peter could change course.
But that assumed that the great vessel had not run aground. Pope Benedict’s resignation seemed, in most ways, to be a courageous reckoning with personal limitations and, for the Church, a possible liberation. But his quick exit was also a clear sign of the gravity of the Church’s crisis. One issue pressed in upon the prelates more than others: they were broadly regarded as having failed to deal forthrightly with the sexual-abuse crisis. Cardinal Keith O’Brien had just been forced to resign as head of the Church in Scotland after accusations emerged of inappropriate sexual relations with young priests.
Beginning in 2002, revelations that Catholic clergy had been molesting young people on a horrendous scale for decades spread from the United States to Europe; heavily Catholic countries like Ireland, Belgium, and Austria were particularly shaken. The many thousands of abusers were a minority of priests, yet almost all bishops who knew of violations sought to cover up the scandal, allowing many predators to continue their abuse. Disillusioned and angry, Catholics left the Church in droves. In the United States, ten per cent of adults are former Catholics, a group that far exceeds every other religious denomination except the remaining Catholics.
As Cardinal, Ratzinger had instructed bishops to forward accusations against priests to the Vatican, affirming secrecy. That policy, along with the Vatican’s long-standing practice of discouraging bishops from reporting to civil authorities, made the scandal worse. Finally, as Pope, Benedict acknowledged the role of the state in prosecuting crimes, imposed stricter controls on the Church’s process, and repeatedly apologized to victims. Yet all this was undercut by the Vatican’s own ongoing denial, from John Paul forward, of the criminal obfuscation of bishops. Cardinal Bernard Law was driven in disgrace from Boston in 2002, yet was then honorably ensconced at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most prestigious churches in Rome, where he remains Archpriest Emeritus. In 2012, the Bishop of Kansas City, Robert Finn, was convicted of the crime of not reporting an abusive priest to civil authorities. The priest had continued to exploit children, and when caught he was sentenced to fifty years in prison. Finn, the first U.S. bishop convicted, was sentenced to two years’ probation. He remains the Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph today.
The word “conclave” means “with a key.” After the extra omnes—Latin for “everybody out”—was pronounced, the grand doors of the Sistine Chapel were locked to outsiders, but before that the cardinals were confronted with their situation. As is customary, they had elected one of their members to deliver an opening meditation—eighty-seven-year-old Cardinal Prospero Grech, a Maltese theologian who has spent much of his career teaching in Rome. Unsurprisingly, Cardinal Grech began his brief discourse with a reference to St. Peter, whose successor was about to be chosen. But instead of the usual Tu es Petrus—“You are Peter!”—triumphalism with which Jesus commissioned the Apostle, giving him the keys to the kingdom, Grech invoked a very different Gospel scene, in which the Risen Jesus challenges Peter over his having three times betrayed him on the night of his Passion. Peter was like Judas.
For each of Peter’s denials, Jesus pointedly asks, “Peter, do you love me?” The abject Peter replies, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Being able to answer the question like that, Grech said, is the only important thing for the man elected Pope. Grech made no reference to Peter’s denials, but he confronted the cardinals with the parameters of the crisis they faced: sexual abuse of children and the Church’s lack of transparency. He referred to violations “even in the papal household,” which include “VatiLeaks,” the papal butler’s revelations that led to discoveries of alleged homosexual blackmail and talk of a whistle-blowing prelate being sent abroad. In recent years, a Vatican chorister was fired for acting as a pimp; hugely inflated contracts for routine maintenance of Vatican buildings were traced to paybacks and bribery schemes; and the Bank of Italy shut down all Vatican A.T.M.s because of money-laundering risks. Grech recalled that Church evils in the past had been far worse, but still, he said, “the truth is spoken to us.”
It was markedly different from the sermon delivered by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the eve of the previous conclave, in 2005, when he rallied the cardinals by pitting the virtuous Church against the world’s “dictatorship of relativism.” That sermon, encapsulating Ratzinger’s vision of the Church’s moral superiority, was widely perceived as having sealed his election. Now a cardinal was speaking very differently. “One must humble himself before God and men, and try to eradicate the evil at all costs,” Grech said.
I met with Grech in a parlor at St. Monica’s, the Augustinian monastery abutting Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Square, where he has lived off and on since 1946. He is a lanky man with an aristocratic bearing. When I noted the penitent tone he had struck in his meditation, he said, “Mind you, these things had already been raised by the cardinals themselves before the conclave.”
Toward the end of his meditation, Grech had asked the cardinals, “And you, why are you here?” He answered, “In 1961, John XXIII . . . pointed out the dominant figure of Christ the Judge in the fresco of Michelangelo.” The stark “Last Judgment” takes up much of the wall behind the Sistine Chapel’s high altar. The painting is from later in Michelangelo’s life, made when the savage wars of the Reformation were breaking out. Its dark vision stands in marked contrast to his “Creation of Adam,” painted decades earlier: the optimistic ceiling fresco of God’s outstretched finger almost touching Adam’s. The two paintings make a statement about a Church that is, in Martin Luther’s phrase, simul iustus et peccator—as sinful as it is virtuous. The “Last Judgment” shows a stern Christ, judging the righteous and sinners alike. Michelangelo put his own face on the shrivelled, flayed body of a martyr. Grech said to the cardinals, “You find yourself in this same chapel, under the figure of that Christ, with his hand raised not to crush but to illuminate your vote.”
Late one day in Rome, I attended an Evensong service at Caravita, a small Baroque church on Via del Collegio Romano, in the center of the city. The street name refers to the first of the many Jesuit schools that now cover the world, and the assembled worshippers included Jesuit faculty from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where the Church’s theological élite are trained. I struck up a conversation with a Jesuit during the social hour after the service, and was startled when he introduced himself as Norman Tanner. He was the editor of a legendary English translation of the documents of the Church Councils, including Vatican II. Last year, in observance of the council’s fiftieth anniversary, a new edition of the translation was issued, titled “Vatican II: The Essential Texts.” I wrote one of two introductions to the volume. I had never met Father Tanner, a professor of Church history at the Gregorian. “You’re James Carroll?” he said. Then he grinned. “You provided a nice balance.”
The other introduction was by Pope Benedict: the text of an address about Vatican II that he had given to the Roman Curia in 2005. I was intimidated to be paired with him. Our essays turned out to exemplify the tension between two Catholic views of Vatican II. In a review of the book in the British Catholic journal The Tablet, Hilmar Pabel wrote that the essays “make the book a curiosity. Combined, they have a confusing effect.” Pope Benedict, Pabel wrote, “distinguishes two conflicting ways of interpreting the council: the ‘hermeneutic of reform,’ advocated by the Pope, and ‘the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.’ He might consider Carroll an adherent of the latter hermeneutic for his description of the council as a ‘revolution from the top’ whose ‘momentous changes must be acknowledged as such.’ ”
Francis describes himself as a loyal “son of the Church,” and has a record as a doctrinal conservative. Many observers insist that in a Church understood assemper idem—always the same—the most that even an apparently innovative figure like Francis can effect is “pastoral” adjustments in discipline or practice: a merciful easing up on rules without repealing them. Even if he wanted to, Pope Francis could not alter the basic beliefs of the Church.
But in fact the Church has made profound doctrinal changes in living memory. In 1964, the council repudiated a millennium-long tradition of “No Salvation Outside the Church.” That formulation dates at least to the Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, and was reiterated by councils and Popes through my youth. Vatican II overturned the doctrine by affirming the primacy of conscience—a teaching Francis has reiterated, applying it to atheists as well.
Still more momentous is the council’s rejection of the “Christ-killer” slander against Jews, which has its roots in the Gospels. The council even affirmed that the covenant which God made with Israel is full and permanent—a reversal of the “replacement” theology that had defined Catholic self-understanding from the time of the Church fathers. Francis affirmed the rupture that separates current attitudes from tradition when he said, “Through the awful trials of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we, the Church and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them.” Jewish preservation of faith, of course, presumed an ongoing Jewish rejection of claims made for Christ. What Jews were condemned for across centuries, that is, they must be thanked for today. None of the potential changes to doctrine facing the contemporary Church compare with the depth of this revision.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, of New York, is typical of those conservatives who insist that Francis’s unprecedented “style” alters nothing of “substance,” a position Dolan reiterated early this month. “A Pope, by his nature, can’t make doctrinal changes,” Dolan said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He can make a lot of changes in the way, the style, the manner in which it’s presented.”
I took the question up with Antonio Spadaro, the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica. His interview with Pope Francis had, after all, sparked much of this discussion. Spadaro, who is forty-seven, is balding and energetic, and works from a modern office in a villa not far from the Spanish Steps. The day I interviewed him was the twenty-fifth anniversary of his admission to the Jesuits, and I sensed the amiable good will that had won him the trust of the new Pope. “The Pope is a volcano!” he said, grinning.
When I asked Spadaro about the style-versus-substance debate, he banged his fist down on a book on a table next to his desk. “Style is not just the cover of the book,” he declared. “It’s the book itself!” He continued, “Style is the message. The substance is the Gospel. This is what the Gospel looks like.”
- Another Jesuit, Father Joseph Daoust, a senior officer in the order’s Rome headquarters, told me, “The way we practice our faith affects how we believe. How we believe affects how we practice. There’s a back and forth, and has been all through history. I don’t want to say his style will lead nowhere—doctrinally. I think it will. . . . That’s been the normal history of the Church.” Before leaving Spadaro’s office, I looked again at the book on his table: it was “Bruce,” a biography of Bruce Springsteen. The book next to it—the breadth of a Jesuit’s interest!—was “Ratzinger: Opera Omnia.”
Last July, Pope Francis took his first official trip outside of Rome, to celebrate a Mass on Lampedusa, a remote island in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia. He used the upended wreck of a fishing boat as an altar. About seventy miles from the Tunisian coast, Lampedusa covers roughly eight square miles. It has been the landfall for thousands of desperate African migrants seeking a better life in Europe. Before the Mass, Pope Francis spoke in a sprawling sports field to a crowd of mostly Muslim African migrants. Living in squalid camps, they are the lucky ones; thousands of others have died at sea. In the first months of the new pontificate, every few weeks the tragedy of migrant drownings was repeated. Few in Europe seemed to notice. “What hurts the most,” the mayor of Lampedusa wrote in an open letter, “is that Europe is a bystander.”
In his homily, Francis spoke of “immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death.” Two weeks before I arrived in Rome, yet another boat had sunk near Lampedusa. About three hundred and sixty people drowned. A week later, another boat sank, with two hundred aboard. “In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” Francis said. “We have become used to the suffering of others.” During Francis’s visit, an archbishop handed out phone cards to the survivors. The Pope made Lampedusa an issue. In October, a European Union commissioner called for “a big save-rescue operation in the Mediterranean.”
If, as Pope, Francis has tempered his opinions on matters of sexual morality, his advocacy for the poor has become even more acute. In last month’s exhortation, Francis expanded his critique of the world economy: “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule.” This problem is fundamental to every problem: “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve.” Conservative critics faulted Francis’s analysis. Rush Limbaugh called it “pure Marxism.” Samuel Gregg, the author of “Tea Party Catholic,” writing in National Review, was more respectful but still rejected the Pope’s “straw-man arguments about the economy.”
Daoust observed that for Francis “the bottom line is what’s happening to the poor.” A trained economist, Daoust said that Pope Francis was not proposing an alternative structure of global exchange. Rather, he was making a simple point of right and wrong. “Ignoring the refugees at Lampedusa is just intolerable,” Daoust said. President Barack Obama, joining the Pope’s protest against inequality, saluted Francis for being an “extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice.”
Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history, and his fierce conviction has the particular accent of a religious order that has redefined itself since Vatican II around “faith that promotes justice,” as Jesuits put it now. If Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a conversion moment, Daoust told me, it was probably at the 1974-75 Jesuit Congregation, the worldwide meeting in Rome of the society’s leadership that was summoned by Superior General Pedro Arrupe, of Spain, a controversial liberalizing figure. Arrupe’s priesthood had been defined by the experience of being in Hiroshima when the atom bomb fell, and as Superior he set a new course. Given what Bergoglio was facing in Buenos Aires, the gathering must have been tumultuous for him: his own positions were being challenged. The order embraced an unprecedented understanding of itself. “We can no longer pretend that the inequalities and injustices of our world must be borne as part of the inevitable order of things,” the Congregation declared. To be a Jesuit today “is to engage, under the standard of the Cross, in the crucial struggle of our time: the struggle for faith and that struggle for justice which it includes.” The Jesuits affirmed “belief in a God who is justice because he is love.”
Critics regarded the turn as a betrayal of transcendent values in favor of an overemphasis on the secular world. Vatican suspicion of liberation theology extended now to the Jesuits, and soon Jesuits were dying in the struggle for justice, especially in Latin America. “If you kill one of us,” Daoust said to me, recalling the spirit of the time, when six Jesuits were murdered in El Salvador, “we’ll send three.” When Arrupe was disabled by a stroke, in 1981, Pope John Paul II rejected the man Arrupe had chosen to oversee the selection of his successor, and appointed his own delegate, which was taken as an insult to Arrupe and a rebuke to the order. Philip Pullella, the longtime Vatican correspondent for Reuters, told me that some called John Paul’s intervention an act of papal martial law.
In September, Pope Francis gathered with several hundred other Jesuits at the Church of the Gesù, in the center of Rome, where St. Ignatius is buried. Arrupe, who died in 1991, is also buried there. After Mass, Francis stood silently before the tomb of Arrupe. More than one Jesuit told me that this simple act was profoundly moving.
Once a religious order puts world justice at the center of its identity, the ethical concern must apply within the Church, too. What about women? A subsequent Jesuit Congregation, in 1995, addressed “the unjust treatment and exploitation of women,” denouncing the “ ‘feminization of poverty’ and a distinctive ‘feminine face of oppression.’ ” The Jesuits also decried “the alienation of women who no longer feel at home in the Church.” Under Francis, the Vatican has kept in place Benedict XVI’s punitive investigation of American nuns, whose stalwart commitment to Vatican II had become a bad fit in a retrenching Church. For example, the public support of some groups of Catholic sisters for Obama’s health-care reform, which bishops mainly opposed, offered decisive cover to Catholic legislators voting yes. Nuns on the Bus, a social-justice pressure group, was accused of caring too little about abortion. The Vatican moved to increase the oversight of a group that represents many of the sisters, sparking a backlash. “People do not know how hurt and disillusioned women are,” Sister Mary C. Boys, a prominent theologian and the Dean of Academic Affairs at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, told me. “So much more could be accomplished by engaging us in genuine conversation.”
In November, the Irish Times cited reports that Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland, was being considered by Pope Francis for appointment to the College of Cardinals. It was an astonishing thought, but, unlike the priesthood, whose all-male character is said to have been set by Jesus’ choice of twelve men as apostles, no theological obstacle prevents a woman from being offered the red hat. The choice is the Pope’s alone. Last year, Cardinal Dolan said he had heard that Pope John Paul II considered naming Mother Teresa to the body. Still, Lombardi, the papal spokesman, dismissed the notion of the former Irish President’s appointment as “nonsense.”
A Catholic born in Belfast, McAleese was the first person from Northern Ireland to be President of the Irish Republic, in the south—a potent symbol of the bridge building that gave her two terms as President their theme. In 1998, she helped solidify the Good Friday Agreement, which ushered in Ireland’s era of peace. At the end of her second term, in 2011, she moved to Rome to study canon law at the Gregorian. She is now working toward her doctorate and will be one of the few women to have earned the ecclesiastical degree.
In speaking of women’s ordination, Francis has cited John Paul II’s “definitive formulation,” agreeing, “That door is closed.” He reiterated the exclusion last month. I asked McAleese what she made of the prospects for women under the new Pope. We were sitting in a café at Boston College, where she was spending the fall semester as a visiting scholar. She stirred her hot chocolate. “That ties in with the other issue, which is collegiality, which he has opened up,” she said. A blond woman of sixty-two, McAleese has a winning smile, but her firm voice conveys the habit of authority. “Women in priesthood, women in diaconate are important issues, but they are not the only issues.” McAleese takes for granted that women should be ordained, but she also sees the constraints within which the Pope must operate. Because his predecessors “came very close” to tying the prohibition to infallibility, “he has to act with some degree of political nuance.”
Since Vatican II, the word “collegiality” has become a euphemism for dismantling the top-down power structure of the Church. The council sought, unsuccessfully, to flatten the pyramid that has the Pope on the pinnacle, bishops and priests arrayed in the upper echelons, and laypeople, well, squashed at the bottom. But Francis is changing that, moving from the vertical to the horizontal. In last month’s exhortation, he said, “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life.”
Early in his pontificate, the Pope established a council of eight cardinals, representing six continents, charged with bringing the experience of local churches to bear on decisions made in Rome. They met with the Pope in October, and again this month, beginning the reform of the dysfunctional Curia. Concluding their October meeting, Pope Francis emphasized—and elevated in importance—an upcoming synod, or representative body of bishops, set to convene in 2014. The synod will take up the question of “The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
Under Francis’s guidance, a subsequent directive called on dioceses to distribute to parishioners a Vatican questionnaire that asks about divorce, birth control, unmarried people living together, and gay marriage. This panoply of sex-related issues that has divided the Church and decimated its authority must now be considered. Not long ago, Rome was insisting that change on any of these issues was out of the question. But why ask for input if no change is possible?
When Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the synod, was recently asked if remarried divorcees might be admitted to the sacraments, he replied, “The fact that it has been included in the questionnaire means it is going to be looked at, and the intention is to discuss the issue without any taboos, otherwise it would not have been mentioned. This seems obvious to me.”
“This is a great opportunity for Francis,” McAleese said of the synod. “Please, let us not have a bunch of men who have deliberately chosen not to have families tell us as members of families how we’re going to live our family life. Please, let us have a broad-ranging discussion in which people who have real experience of family lead the reflection.” The synod will be a test of Francis’s papacy. “If it’s going to be solely bishops talking at the synod in the way they have talked in the past, they may as well not bother going to Rome,” McAleese said.
It is clear that Pope Francis is not a liberal. But if he initiates a true shift in the way that power is exercised in the Church he may turn out to be a radical. “Can he do it?” McAleese asked. Then she answered, “He’s the Pope!”
But, in all this anticipated progress, the Church’s sexual-abuse crisis still lingers. Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a comprehensive archive of the abuse crisis, pointed out to me that the Vatican questionnaire contains no questions about what the exploitation of children by priests has done to Catholic families. What of the broken trust? When will parents again resume the easy confidence in parish priests that was once a defining mark of Catholic life? And how will bishops resume their role as dependable shepherds?
- Early this month, Francis met in Rome with bishops from the Netherlands. In 2011, an official Dutch commission concluded that Church officials had “failed to take adequate action” regarding the abuse of tens of thousands of children in Catholic institutions, going back to 1945. The Dutch Church, humiliated and penitent, was staggered. More victims surfaced. In prepared remarks, Francis was to have said to the bishops, “I wish to express my compassion and to insure my closeness in prayer to every victim of sexual abuse, and to their families. I ask you to continue to support them along the painful path of healing that they have undertaken with courage.” The text was handed to the bishops, but instead of actually speaking it Francis engaged the bishops informally, and the prepared expression of compassion, while released by the Vatican press office, was not delivered as written.
Since becoming Pope, Francis has hardly mentioned the abuse crisis. He has not met with victims, and, though continuing Benedict’s espoused “zero tolerance” of sexual abuse itself, he has yet to adjust Vatican policies governing the responsibilities of bishops. Two days after Francis’s meeting with Dutch bishops, the Vatican refused to provide the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child with records of its sexual-abuse investigations. A fierce critic of self-serving and entitled priests, Francis has yet to confront the way in which the inbred clerical culture itself provided the cover—and the license—both for abuse and for the denial and deflection with which bishops responded to it.
For Doyle and other critics, the failure starts with Bergoglio’s role in Argentina, a country where sexual abuse of children by priests remains a largely untold story. “The Pope should begin with his own record in Argentina,” Doyle said in a statement. “We urge him to release a complete list of all credibly accused clerics with whom he dealt. . . . He should then compel every bishop and religious superior worldwide to publish a similar list, as twenty-six U.S. bishops and religious superiors have done.”
Miriam Lewin is a prominent Argentine journalist whose investigations into priests’ abuse of children over a dozen years have helped push the scandal into the open in Buenos Aires. I asked her what she made of the Pope’s recent expression of compassion for victims. “Just words,” she said. “He should meet personally with victims. He should support civil justice against priests and send the pedophiles to jail. After that, his words will mean something.” When I asked her what she thought of Bergoglio, she answered that he has a different “kind of responsibility now.” She added, “Bergoglio is one thing. Francesco is another.”
The day after I spoke with Lewin, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had ordered the establishment of a sexual-abuse commission, made up of priests, nuns, and lay experts, to safeguard children and respond to victims. In a statement, Doyle said that BishopAccountability.org “cautiously welcomes” the pending commission. “There is no indication that the commission will study either the Vatican’s culpability or the crucial need to discipline bishops, religious superiors and other church supervisors who enable child rape and molestation.”
Last month, in his exhortation, Francis said, “We have to be like the father of the prodigal son, who always keeps his door open so that when the son returns, he can readily pass through it.” In Jesus’ parable, related in the Gospel of Luke, the younger brother has squandered his legacy, but then repents, returns home, and is fêted by the delighted father. The older brother, who stayed close and tended the homestead, is resentful. When was a fatted calf ever slain for him? Francis did not mention the brother. Yet, as John L. Allen, Jr., wrote, in theNational Catholic Reporter, some Catholic conservatives, having faithfully toed the line of Church discipline, respond to the open-armed inclusiveness of Francis by identifying with that unhappy brother. The Times columnist Ross Douthat, who offers “praise for Pope Francis’s rhetoric and emphases,” worries that “what we’re seeing is just the pendulum swinging back toward the progressive style in Catholic theology, in ways that may win the Church a temporary wave of good publicity but ultimately just promise to sustain the long post-Vatican II civil war.” Douthat, who is thirty-four, is especially impatient with Catholics of my generation for, as he sees it, forcing the choice between “God’s love and God’s justice, between the immanent and the transcendent, between solidarity with the marginalized and doctrinal fidelity.” The ambivalence of Catholic conservatives was perfectly caught by Stephen Colbert in October at the white-tie Al Smith dinner, at the Waldorf-Astoria. Self-described as “America’s most famous Catholic,” Colbert said, “I believe the Pope is infallible. But he’s also wrong about a lot of things.” Colbert added that if Francis were at the dinner we “wouldn’t know, because His Humbleness would be out washing the feet of the coat-check guy.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Philadelphia, a leading conservative figure in the American Catholic Church, became famous during the Presidential campaign of 2004 for raising the issue of whether John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, should be allowed to receive Communion. Chaput was widely quoted last summer as having said that Catholic conservatives “generally have not been really happy” with Francis. Last month, at a meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore, he clarified his remarks. “I was not criticizing the Holy Father,” Chaput said. “What I brought up was that I’m aware there are people who are critical of the Holy Father.” (Francis himself told Spadaro he had been “reprimanded” by critics.) As if speaking for the disgruntled older brothers, Chaput added, “And that it’s important that he talk to them, too.” Chaput encouraged disapproving conservatives to suspend judgment about Francis. “We should look at him after a year, rather than trying to size him up at each speech.”
- I went to see Davíd Carrasco, the Harvard historian of religion. His high-ceilinged office at the Mesoamerican Archive, in the Peabody Museum, is dominated by an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He is a large middle-aged Latino, bearded and balding, and wears his hair nearly to his shoulders. Without any cue, he said of Francis’s papacy, “What came to me was the prodigal-son story, only here it’s the prodigalfather! It’s not the prodigal son who’s gone out and is returning. It’s the prodigal father—the father of the Church who seemed to have gone away.” Carrasco added, “Away from so much of what John XXIII meant.” He went on, “It’s as though there’s a return of this father who is supposed to protect us, guide us, and love us.” A return from abuse, authoritarianism, misogyny—all the ways, beyond the Church, the fathers of this age have let us down.
Is that why the response to Pope Francis has been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? Mary McAleese told me that even “kick the Pope” Orangemen in Northern Ireland love Pope Francis. The press is obsessed with him. Time recently named him Person of the Year. The Huffington Post reported the speculation that Francis, garbed as a lowly priest, steals out of the Vatican at night to care for Rome’s homeless. Legends like that suggest a new readiness to look at what a Pope can be. Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? “I would like us to make noise,” he told a throng of young people in Brazil in July. “I want the Church to be in the streets; I want us to defend ourselves against all that is worldliness, comfort, being closed and turned within. Parishes, colleges, and institutions must get out, otherwise they risk becoming N.G.O.s, and the Church is not a non-governmental organization.” But, of course, the Church is an N.G.O.—the largest in the world. Roman Catholicism is the only worldwide institution that crosses boundaries of north and south, east and west, affluence and abject poverty. Given that reach, how can the human family thrive without a reformed, critically minded, ethically responsible Catholic Church? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human longing for transcendence?
Observing the couple who presented themselves to the Pope in St. Peter’s Square, I realized, as the Pope pressed his hands on the bowed head of the stricken man, that curing and healing are not the same thing. To cure is to remove disease. To heal is to make whole, and wholeness can belong as much to the infirm as to the healthy. “The first reform,” Pope Francis said, “must be the attitude.” ♦