If you intend to be a proper Catholic priest, you would be wise to follow the little formalities of the church. When in Rome, for example, you are required to wear your cassock or at least a clergy shirt, and bishops and cardinals are expected to wear their flowing robes. But Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was cardinal of Buenos Aires before he became known to the world as Pope Francis, hated pomp and ceremony and was not very proper at all. He kept his scarlet robes in a convent founded by an Argentine nun, so he wouldn’t have to carry the damn things back and forth to Vatican City. Before heading for a priests’ residence in central Rome he would stop by the convent, chat for a bit, and pick up the garments, which had been reverently pressed and folded for him by the nuns.
Bergoglio stopped at the convent one last time, last year in March, on his way to the historic conclave of 115 cardinals that would elect him the first Latin American pope and the first from the order of the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits. He must have had a very good idea of his chances. Little known beyond Argentina, he had nevertheless finished second in the vote that elected Benedict XVI in 2005. It was understood that he was an outlier, ascetic, unconventional to a fault, but he seemed to be the right kind of pope to clean up the world’s oldest and largest institution, hemorrhaging followers and riddled as it is with ancient vices, and bring it into the XXIst century.
What may not have been so clear to the cardinals who chose him above all others at that conclave is that Francis would enter the Vatican like Jesus into the Temple or a bull into a china shop, knocking over conventions and rules with abandon. And what stunned everyone was that, from the moment he stepped out on the balcony of St. Peter’s for the first time on that drizzly evening, he would channel a ravening hunger for change among millions of people all over the world. He certainly didn’t look like a world-changer. A mild-mannered, slightly stooped, grandfatherly old man dressed in simplest white—no lace and scarlet finery for him—he stood quietly contemplating the crowd for a very long minute before uttering a hearty buona sera! with a pronounced Argentine accent. The effort of bending forward to receive the people’s blessing made Francis’s back tremble slightly, and watching on a screen I, a non-Catholic, was moved, too.
A few weeks later, on a plane coming back from Brazil, he uttered his famous “who am I to judge” gays, and things started to move very fast.
What, really, can we make of this strange new pope? Hundreds of thousands of words have been written in the effort to understand him. He is without question the most popular human being alive today: Barack Obama gets an average of 1,300 retweets on his account; Pope Francis gets twenty thousand. Beyoncé, traveling from one city to another, fills an auditorium in each with twenty or forty-five thousand people. Francis, a 77-year-old who walks with a limp, has been filling St. Peter’s square every Wednesday morning with between eighty and a hundred thousand euphoric people.
“Who cares what that old man says?” a worldly friend of mine said recently. Well, a jillion Catholics do, not to mention a large number of Palestinians and Israelis who looked on in astonishment as Francis, with a series of shockingly simple gestures, preached a wordless sermon of tolerance in the Middle East in May. Smiling, kissing babies, embracing beggars, donning a fan’s baseball cap, saying plain things in plain Italian, scoffing at his own church’s obsession with sex, the pope seems to us intimate and sensible, affectionate, neighborly, instantly readable, radiating warmth. Jorge Mario Bergoglio is, no doubt, all of these things, and also, sometimes, positively odd.
He doesn’t take vacations. He’s terrible at languages. In the days following his election, he snuck out of the Vatican late at night to distribute alms among the homeless. He likes to imitate Christ, and he avails himself of random opportunities to engage in foot-washing, even though standard church practice is for priests and popes to wash the feet of twelve men of the faith—not women—only during Easter Week.
But there are also earlier and more troubling stories from a lifetime ago, that in 1976, as head of the Argentine Jesuits, he ousted two of his radicalized left-wing priests from the order, leaving them with no protection against the searing repression that was getting started under the supervision of the country’s fanatical right-wing generals.
The self-abaser who washes feet, the representative of Christ on earth who repeats earnestly that he is a sinner, the troubled autocrat who may indeed have committed a terrible sin, the beaming, fatherly pope who gives hope and spiritual sustenance to millions are one and the same person—a complicated man, conservative and radical, charitable and intransigent, a mass of contradictions. Eager to get the church back to its foundational years of poverty and evangelization, he’s made enormous changes already in everything from the way church finances are run to the renewed sense of purpose clergy now have in their lives. Always fearless, he has just boomed out a verbal excommunication of all members of the ’Ndrangheta, a particularly vicious global mafia organization based in Calabria. But a number of things stand in the way of his ambitious plans for the church’s future: his own character, which in the past has made him a divisive leader; the Vatican Curia, or government, beset with corruption and inefficiency; deeply conservative church hierarchies everywhere from Africa to the United States; and his health, which is far from good. This last month alone he cancelled two full days of appointments due to fatigue, and last week the Vatican announced that Francis would cancel his regular Wednesday audiences and daily morning masses through July. He has much to accomplish, and a larger mandate than any previous pope in memory to achieve his goals, but time and institutions stand in his way.
One afternoon on the Borgo Pio—the Vatican neighborhood’s restaurant row—I talked late into the lunch hour with Jesuit Father Gabriel Ignacio Rodríguez, an intensely spiritual and friendly Colombian priest, about Francis, and his own feelings toward this startling pope.
“Francis surprises me every day!” Rodríguez said, speaking in a hushed, churchy voice in the crowded restaurant, and managing the trick of exclaiming under his breath. He had been looking back to the “horrendous” years of Benedict XVI’s papacy, during which, whenever the church was in the news it was because of another financial scandal, or accusations of pedophilia against one more bishop, while the shy, elderly Benedict withdrew into his own rooms, increasingly aware that he was unfit to cope with the crisis. With the shock of Benedict’s resignation in February of last year came the sense of a church unmoored.
“The only way I can explain the difference between that day—Benedict’s resignation—and what we have today is that God became present in the church,” he said. “Francis is a man who’s in the news every day because he surprises every day. Because he’s free, and human, and responds to the events of everyday life with an open heart.”
“The way he interacts with people is clearly that of a Latin American man,” he added. “The kneeling everywhere, giving away rosaries, carrying the gospel around in his pocket—all of these are part of the religiosity of the people. It’s based on signs—symbols, gestures. European religion is more in the brain; more about discourse and categories. And then there’s the physical element. He needs contact. He arrives at a gathering looking worn, and in a few minutes he’s recharged through the contact with people.”
Rodríguez leaned back in his chair, considering the joyful new sense of purpose that fills him and his brethren, the electrified crowds in St. Peter’s, the non-Catholic world’s enthusiasm. “If that isn’t God acting,” he exclaimed, out loud this time and with an enormous smile, “then tell me what it is!”
I had the impression, as I made the Vatican rounds, that I was talking to men who hadn’t laughed in a while and were now relishing the opportunity. One afternoon I sat in the chic white office of Antonio Spadaro, who is the editor in chief of the influential Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica. Last August, Francis chose the crisp, witty Spadaro as the interlocutor for his first lengthy interview, a text whose many ideas have been read, studied, and quoted in the Catholic world any number of times since. But what Spadaro wanted to talk about when we met was not the interview but the man.
“The first time I met him, he gave me a hug,” Spadaro said of Francis. “And what was surprising was how comfortable it felt. The cercanía, the closeness, struck me.
“People who knew him [before he was elected pope] say he was not always like this. He was more serious, withdrawn. Now he is more smiling, more expansive, as if he were more happy with himself. He has even gotten maybe a little bit fat, or not really fat.” Spadaro smiled affectionately and made a plump-y gesture with his hands. “Maybe more at ease.”
Truly, one can look through hundreds of photos of Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina and not find one in which he is smiling. Asked to define himself in the interview with Spadaro, Pope Francis answered, “I am a sinner,” and added, “It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre…. I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Spadaro, who has clearly reflected intensely on every aspect of his meeting with Francis ever since (“He changed my life!” he says now) considered his subject: “There have been many crises in his life,” he said. “They are part of his personality. He has experienced suffering.”
It was in 1973 when Bergoglio’s time of greatest suffering began.
He was 36 years old and newly named as provincial superior, or national director, of the Argentine Jesuits. I was much younger than that and passing through Buenos Aires at the time, and clearly recall the collective political insanity of the period. The military, having deposed the populist leader Juan Domingo Perón years earlier, had just decided to allow him back. But the Peronist movement was split into a dozen factions, notably an ultranationalist far-right wing allied with sections of the putschist military, and an ultranationalist far-left wing spearheaded by a guerrilla organization, the Montoneros. The military set up clandestine torture centers and disappeared thousands of suspected guerrillas and their sympathizers. The guerrillas assassinated “class enemies” and set off bombs. Neighborhood priests became radicalized under the banner of the new, left-wing liberation theology (which claimed that the church should have “a preferential option for the poor”) or its Peronist variation, theology of the people (which shared that aim, but without liberation theology’s Marxist influence). Much of the church hierarchy collaborated openly and shamefully with the government torturers.
Where was Jorge Bergoglio in all this? He was, at a minimum, sympathetic with a thuggish Peronist group called the Iron Guard, and eventually turned over administration of one of the Jesuits’ two universities in Buenos Aires to a few of its leading members. The historian Tulio Halperín Donghi remembered the group well: “It was a fairly sinister organization. In the [university] schools of the humanities, which were always the most political, these furies would suddenly appear, swinging chains,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “It was completely crazy, because aside from everything else they were vegans, or something like that.”
Bergoglio took his final vows in April 1973, as a member of the rigorous order of Jesuits, and barely three months later he was named provincial. He was too young, he says of that time now, but most of all he appears to have been far too inexperienced.
During those years several radicalized Jesuit priests who worked in the shanty towns around Buenos Aires became trapped in a net of gossip and rumors against them, a net that their direct superior, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, may have helped to weave. The accusations centered on two men: the Hungarian-born Franz Jalics and the Argentine Orlando Yorio. Bergoglio, whose job as provincial it was to assign priests to their posts, kept telling the two priests that there was pressure from Rome to remove them from pastoral work. But he would not tell them why, or what the accusations were, according to a detailed account of the whole affair written by Yorio. The fact that Bergoglio was not only ideologically opposed to the activist priests but also younger—he had been their student—was no doubt a factor in the tensions between them. But the poisonous gossip that surrounded Yorio and Jalics wherever they went had to do with their politics, and especially with a general suspicion that Yorio was having an affair with one of the young women in the community and collaborating with the Montoneros.
What happened next is in dispute. According to the most informed versions, Bergoglio told the men that if they wished to stay in the Jesuit order they had to suspend their radical organizing activities in the barrio where they were working. They refused, and in May 1976 they were expelled, forfeiting whatever protection the church could have afforded them. Within days they were picked up by men working for the Navy commander, Admiral Emilio Massera, who supervised the most horrifying of the torture centers. The two men were first told that their detention had been a “mistake” and then spent five months in what were, by the standard of what is now known as the Dirty War, privileged circumstances: blindfolded, in chains, and all but starved in filthy cells.
Yorio maintained until his death in 2000 that Bergoglio tricked him and Jalics into signing their voluntary dismissal, and that he was to blame for their kidnapping. Bergoglio says that the two priests left voluntarily, and that when they were taken he did everything in his power to obtain their release, using his contacts on the right to obtain two interviews with General Jorge Rafael Videla, the fanatic in charge of the brand-new military junta, and to get in touch with the torturer Massera. Two former members of the Iron Guard surfaced last year to state that they had personally carried a request from Bergoglio to Massera to free the two priests. If this version of the story is true, it would explain why Jalics and Yorio survived, when the other members of the community picked up during that week were never seen again. One year after the priests were released, Massera got an honorary doctorate from the Jesuit university.
Franz Jalics is still alive. He lives in seclusion in a German monastery, and since Bergoglio’s election has declared that Bergoglio was not guilty, that he had made his peace with the events of that era, and that he would say no more on the matter. In 2013 he met in strict privacy with Francis for the second time since his imprisonment in Argentina, during an unannounced visit to the Vatican.
But there is yet another side to Bergoglio’s activity during the Dirty War. A number of persecuted guerrillas, some of them from neighboring Uruguay, have testified that during that same period, and at great risk to himself, Bergoglio helped them hide or escape Argentina. There is also the testimony of a longtime human rights worker, Alicia Oliveira, who says that at a time when she was receiving threats and in constant danger of being stuffed into an unmarked car by Massera’s men, she decided to leave her child in the care of others for his protection. Bergoglio, she says, would pick her up in the afternoons and drive her to her son’s school, so that she could see him from a safe distance when school let out.
What if all versions were true? At a minimum, writes Paul Vallely, the most careful of the pope’s many biographers, Bergoglio seems to have clashed with two of his brother Jesuits, whom he was in charge of protecting, and behaved rashly and in ways that put his own flock in danger. The fierce divisions created by Bergoglio’s actions in the Argentine Jesuit order remained until 1986, when Rome intervened. A Colombian Jesuit was sent to reconcile the warring pro- and anti-Bergoglio factions, and Bergoglio was sent away, first to Germany and then to Córdoba, in northern Argentina.
He has had 40 years to reconsider, and suffer. Forty years is a lifetime, and people change. Montoneros who once placed bombs are now respectable citizens, for example, and Francis has changed so dramatically that he now seems as radical a social activist as the men he once assailed. “He realized that there is a pedagogy of God,” Spadaro said now about that period. “He says, ‘God worked in me through those mistakes.’” The pope eats well and sleeps well, he told Spadaro, and I found myself wondering if the beaming Francis, whose belly laughs resound in the Vatican halls and who generally appears to be having a whale of a time in his new ministry, feels that when God looked upon him and granted him the punishing gift of the papacy, He signaled that he was forgiven. I tried the theory out on Spadaro, who looked at me askance.
“He feels himself to be a mystery,” he said, and corrected that statement. “He feels himself to be carrying a mystery within himself.”
One night I had dinner near the Vatican with a parish priest from Colombia, Cristian Echeverry, a gentle man with a habit of speaking clearly. As a new priest he worked for several years in the shantytowns that ring Colombian cities, and he won’t forget those first experiences. “One day I climbed up the hill and knocked at one house, and a little girl—she can’t have been more than fourteen—opened the door, and behind her there was a string of smaller kids. She was pregnant. I asked if I could speak with her mother, and she said ‘I’m the mother here.’” Echeverry recalled. “What has killed theology is that it is created by men who have never been in a barrio.”
Instead, church officials in the Vatican have kept busy barring the doors to Communion for remarried divorcees, preaching against the use of condoms, arguing against liberation theology (whose central concern is the “periphery,” that fuzzy area beyond Europe and the United States where the vast majority of faithful are) and otherwise encouraging Catholics to leave the church in hordes.
Tens of thousands of priests, and nuns, too, have defected from the church in the last 40 years, mostly so they can marry. Few others are springing up to replace them, because they are repelled by the idea of chastity. The lack of priests (and nuns) is now so acute that in parts of traditionally Catholic Mexico the work of the church is left in the hands of deacons (laymen approved by the bishop to carry out certain pastoral duties). In Brazil, in the Xingu, there are 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics in an area the size of Montana. Partly because there is no one to marry, comfort, baptize, and advise them or confess to, tens of millions of Catholics are fleeing to the evangelical sects. Countries like Guatemala may now have an evangelical majority, and in many regions of Latin America the sects are close to pulling even with the traditional Catholic Church.
What if, I asked professor Guzmán Carriquiry, a portly gentleman who, as head of the Vatican’s office for Latin America, is an influential lay member of the Curia, there were a two-tier system, in which some priests chose to marry, while others could choose chastity? Carriquiry narrowed his eyes at me. “All priests who are active today did choose chastity,” he reminded me. (But I am not alone in saying, nor, I suspect, would Carriquiry disagree, that a significant number of the priests in Latin America—and as a reporter I have known many—have been involved in some sort of relationship, gay or straight, and have made no special effort to hide it.)
In Rome, it has to be said, many priests can be found who defend the principle of chastity. “There are rewards,” one such thoughtful priest insisted. Like Echeverry, Father Daniel Gallagher is in his early forties, but unlike his Colombian brother in God, who is poor and ill at ease in Rome, he is an established member of the Curia, and more orthodox in his views. “Chastity is a sacrifice, but it can lead to such a more enriching spiritual experience!” he said. “I always try to communicate that to younger priests and to seminarians. ” But, he acknowledged, “it’s hard.”
“The battle for chastity is endless,” said Echeverry in his unflinching way. “And it gives no quarter. I have stumbled, too. But I’ve often asked myself if all the energy I’ve spent on the effort—physical, psychic, and emotional energy—could have been better used for something else.”
Pragmatic in a crisis, the Vatican looks like it is gearing up to decide that it needs more priests more than it needs chastity. “It is not a question of divine law, in any case,” said Carriquiry. “It can be changed.” And Father Rodríguez pointed out that chastity was not universal for priests until the 16th century. “It can be changed,” he echoed. For his part, Pope Francis has merely said that he could not solve every problem from Rome, that priests in the Eastern Orthodox Church have always married, and that it was up to corajudo (gutsy) bishops to find a way of dealing with the issue. Much as in the United States, one would imagine, it has been left to the states to legalize marijuana piecemeal.
(On the other hand, chastity has always been obligatory for nuns, and this is not likely to change now. And yes, there are indeed women in the Catholic Church—although you wouldn’t know it from spending time with the people who hold power, all male, and who generally paused for a thoughtful and fruitless minute whenever I asked what nun or influential churchwoman I might talk to.)
While the church elaborated on the restrictions governing where and how two adults could have sex, it became gradually apparent that thousands of priests—tens of thousands over the centuries, no doubt—were forcing sex on children under their care. When he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger first brought the old scandal of pederasty into the light. As Benedict XVI, he defrocked 848 priests, and punished 2,572 less severely. But other than appointing yet another commission to study the problem, the Vatican—and Francis—have proposed no new measures. Concretely, there is no hint that they might recognize pederasty as a crime, not a sin, and that priests should be subject to civil court in addition to divine law. It is always worth remembering that Marcial Maciel, founder of the priestly order Legion of Christ, favorite of John Paul II, and a monstrous pederast, embezzler, plagiarist, and drug addict, was ultimately sentenced by the Vatican to a life of “prayer and penance” in a charming house with a garden.
On other fronts Francis has proved more combative. Thoroughgoing financial reform is already under way, and an effective oversight committee for the scandal-ridden Vatican bank is in place, but pederasty is so closely linked to the now fragile finances of the church—in the United States alone victims have reportedly received up to $3 billion, and many parishes have already declared bankruptcy—that one can see why Francis may be wanting to move with feet of lead on the issue.
“May God protect us from the fear of change,” said Francis on his way to his diplomatic visit to the Middle East in May. He was undoubtedly referring to the need for peace in the region, but also to the mess waiting for him back home. Some church rules seem so out of joint with the times that they have been disregarded for decades by parish priests who are not obsessed with the issues Francis calls “from the waist down.” Pope John XXIII, now Saint John XXIII, counseled a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy with regard to birth control, for example. Using the same approach, many divorced Catholics who remarry manage to participate in Catholicism’s central rite regardless. Couples who live together without the marriage sacrament, even in regions where there are no priests, are deemed to be living in sin, but few priests in the periphery have the heart to rain fire and brimstone on such sinners. An extraordinary assembly of world bishops on family life will be held next October—will they formally approve these slips from orthodoxy?
And then there is homosexuality, whose practice caused entire cities to be destroyed by Jehovah in the Bible, and the linked subject of gay marriage. Jorge Mario Bergoglio campaigned against gay marriage in Buenos Aires, but within weeks of his election he uttered his most repeated statement: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” It would be astonishing if Francis, leader of world Catholicism, ever sanctioned abortion or gay marriage, but he could conceivably admit that gays have had a historically strong presence in the priesthood and have as much right as heterosexuals to accept chastity and take vows.
The greatest changes that have taken place under Francis are not quantifiable. At the Jesuits’ Gregorian University in central Rome, which is Italy’s most prestigious intellectual training center for priests, I asked a professor of sociology, Father Rocco D’Ambrosio, who is also a priest in the poverty-stricken southern region of Puglia, about the impact of Francis.
“I took confession the other day from a woman I’ve known for some time,” he began. “And she had been reading the pope’s exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel). She wanted to talk about it, because a section of it, and something she’d heard him say, had made her start to wonder whether she was bringing enough joy to the people around her.”
D’Ambrosio, a natty man in a herringbone jacket and red glasses, leaned forward. “I have been a priest, and heard confession, for 27 years, and this is the first time anyone has come to me wanting to discuss anything a pope said.”
I read Evangelii Gaudium, too, and found in it the same strange talent for simplicity Francis brings to every public statement. He is able to articulate basic ideals—joy, mercy, forgiveness, honesty, passionate faith, the committed life—that made the gospels such revolutionary and overwhelming texts centuries ago. In a quiet voice (he has been missing part of a lung since his youth, which limits the volume) and with no theatrical flourishes, he asks people to be kind and forgiving toward themselves and others and avoid cynicism. Above all, he tells people that Jesus loves them, is always waiting for them, and has an infinite capacity to forgive.
“I ask myself why I am so shaken,” said Father Spadaro, his interviewer. “And someone said to me, ‘It is because he is preaching the gospel in a very simple way.’”
Giacomo Galeazzi, a reporter at Vatican Insider, a supplement of the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa, put it best. “He’s made my job more fun and more simple,” he said. “Francis makes news because everybody understands what he’s saying. It’s like watching Maradona play: There is that beautiful clarity in his game.”
And so Francis is slowly dragging his church into the present, cheered on by millions of Catholics—clerics and laity—because through his inspired use of gestures everyone can see and understand what he’s doing. On his recent trip to the Middle East he leaned his forehead against the wall built by Israel against the Palestinians, transforming it, too, into a wall of lamentation; he went everywhere with his good friends from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and the Islamic leader Sheikh Omar Abboud. He coaxed the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and President Shimon Peres of Israel into joining him at a pointedly nonpolitical prayer session in the Vatican recently. With each gesture he helped reset the terms in which the Middle East conflict might be viewed—not as an inevitable clash of rabid enemies but as an anomalous and unnecessary condition keeping human beings apart.
“First he makes the gesture,” Father Spadaro had explained a few weeks earlier about the pope’s method. “Then he says the words.”
Facing St. Peter’s white travertine basilica, with its huge dome by Michelangelo and the stupendous lead-up of Bernini’s enveloping colonnade, all one can see of the home of the Roman Catholic Church are the enormous walls that stretch out and back to either side of the basilica. They enclose the world’s smallest independent nation: the Vatican (109 acres, 840 inhabitants, limited access). All is gorgeous here: Baroque chapels; Renaissance palaces where the cardinals and officers of the papal state reside in lonely majesty; the papal palace (currently unoccupied, as Francis famously refused to live in such isolated luxury); the ancient riches of the Vatican Library; a glorious expanse of gardens. Also inside the walls, but separated from the rest of the compound, is the only part of the Vatican open to the public: the museums, featuring a collection of some of the greatest works of art ever created, all for the greater glory of the church. There, too, is the vaulted space created so that cardinals under the age of eighty could have an isolated place to gather to elect a new pope: the Sistine Chapel.
This compound was once the visible sign of Catholicism’s glory and might, the crown of its spiritual empire. Today it is the walled fortress of a church whose very existence is threatened. Evangelical media stars preach in crystal palaces while Catholic churches fall into ruin or are sold, turned into libraries or chic dwellings. The Dalai Lama exercises increasing moral influence as head of a faith making converts around the world. For its part, the Catholic Church faces an all-encompassing crisis of shrinkage: fewer faithful; fewer priests; far, far fewer resources; and a catastrophic increase in public scandal, more or less summed up in a recent news story out of the Holy See, about a one-pound shipment of liquid-cocaine-filled condoms, hidden in a box of cushions and left unclaimed at the Vatican post office.
Francis smartly avoided being sucked into the Byzantine atmosphere of the Curia by removing himself from the papal palace to the Santa Marta residence just inside the Vatican walls, where priests and bishops from all over the world come to stay. In passing he assured himself of access to news from the outside world, and guaranteed constant and friendly human contact for himself, but he may now be too removed from the web of intrigue, of which he is the center, to understand what is going on. Someone has been leaking all sorts of stuff about Pope Benedict’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone—and there’s so very much to leak! His supposed sex life, rumors of which abound in Rome; Francis’ rage at Bertone’s 700-square-meter penthouse, lavishly restored, right next door to Francis’s two-room quarters at Santa Marta; the question of how fifteen million euros withdrawn by Bertone from Vatican funds came to end up in a film-production company owned by one of his friends.
Bertone’s feelings about Francis are reportedly cool, or perhaps red-hot, and apparently shared by many. It was up to the outspoken-to-a-fault Honduran archbishop, Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, to announce the growing rebellion against Francis among the conservative hierarchy and the growing murmur that the wrong man had been handed the papal staff. “Expressions like ‘What can it be that this little Argentine pretends?’” said Maradiaga at a meeting of Franciscan orders, adding that a well-known cardinal had let slip the phrase, “We made a mistake.”
I asked a fair-minded man with good access to the thinking in the Curia whether he thought there was a rising sentiment that Francis was moving too fast or in the wrong direction or simply saying outrageous things. Shifting his torso back and forth in an effort to find the balanced way to put his answer, my friend said that Francis had a great sense of initiative but that sometimes he moved too drastically in one direction, or without taking into account procedures that exist for a reason. After a pause he added, weighing each word, “There is, there has been… a certain amount of talk of schism.”
In other words, there are high-ranking and increasingly outspoken discontents both within the Curia and abroad—a number of U.S. bishops among them—who are deeply unhappy with what they believe is the pope’s betrayal of the Catholic faith; so unhappy, in fact, that, according to my friend, some are even contemplating the possibility of establishing a separate Catholicism. The man who would unite all religions in a shared belief in God’s love, and who as provincial of the Argentine Jesuits so divided his order that outside intervention was required, is again proving his ability to unite and divide.
The journalist from Vatican Insider, Giacomo Galeazzi, is convinced that Francis will easily prevail. “His opponents”—he named a handful of high-ranking members of the Curia—“lost power with Ratzinger’s resignation. The Pope is an extraordinarily free man,” Galeazzi said. “He has no debts to the Curia because he comes from the outside. Those who have the power are those who occupy themselves with the periphery. The pope can do what he likes.”
Perhaps. But the list of urgent issues the pope faces is long, and he is neither a young nor healthy man. He is subject to “little fevers” that force him to cancel more and more events. He is overworked, and 77, and many still remember the shameful spectacle of John Paul II’s very public agony. The question of succession is already on everyone’s mind.
There is no consensus even about what the consensus is on the topic. “My understanding,” said Daniel Gallagher, the Curia priest, “is that at the conclave several cardinals made it clear that they did not expect another papal resignation in the future.” But various other priests I talked to expressed their gratitude toward Benedict for taking an overdue step. It’s possible that Francis’s nonstop daily schedule, exhausting to his collaborators and most of all to himself, is motivated by his desire to follow Benedict’s revolutionary precedent and take retirement. “Pope Benedict has made a very significant act [in retiring],” the pope told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia recently. “He has opened the door, has created an institution, that of the eventual popes emeritus. … I will do the same as him, asking the Lord to enlighten me when the time comes.” If the general speculation is correct that if he were to retire, he would do so at the age of eighty, that would mean that he has less than three years to accomplish his revolutionary program. Unless, of course, his health issues mean that he has even less time.
On my last day in Rome I took a final walk down the Borgo Pio, the narrow street in the shadow of St. Peter’s that is crammed with checker-tablecloth outdoor cafes, vestment boutiques, and tatty souvenir shops. The Borgo buzzes with Anglo and Chinese tourists and Bangladeshi crazy-putty vendors. Nigerian bishops, Philippine nuns, and Mexican seminarians bustle by, wide-eyed tourists here themselves, rubbernecking, knocking on doors and hoping for an audience. To spend an hour along the Borgo is to see the world: More, perhaps, than the magnificent treasures of St. Peter’s, it gives a real sense of the vast reach and ambition of the institution founded by the humble apostle Peter some two thousand years ago, and of the faith propping up that edifice. If, in an increasingly agnostic world, we in the Western world still care so much about the fate of Francis and his church, it is because the largest and arguably greatest part of the culture that nurtured that world right through the twentieth century was the creation of that church—music, architecture, Protestantism, painting, early science, sculpture, our most basic social construct (one husband, one wife). For better or worse, we are all children of St. Peter’s god.
But his temple is creaking, springing leaks and cracks everywhere, and the host of enthusiastic priests working inside the Vatican to fix it all may or may not find a way to replace a few crumbling central columns without bringing down the entire construct. And then there is the question Francis implicitly raises in his very public statement about how the faith should be practiced: What is the relationship between the Jesus that Catholics look to for salvation and the huge edifice in Rome?
“I quite like the idea of a church reduced to its smallest expression,” said Father Echeverry when I asked him what would happen if the pope were to die before completing the transformation he is so intent on carrying out. Or what if, despite all the pope’s efforts, materialism and consumerism win the day, or the rigors of a dogmatic belief prove too much for the average person? What if science finally destroys the possibility of faith? What if the faithful no longer fill to overflowing the plaza at St. Peter’s every Wednesday morning? “I like the idea of going from a church that takes its strength in numbers to one about which it can be said that we truly live the Gospel,” said Echeverry. “I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
At the end of my lunch with Father Rodríguez I asked him if he ever felt that the Catholic Church might disappear.
“If it should come to pass that the church, through lack of technological, political, or economic power, or through religious wars, should come to an end, we would simply be living the experience of Jesus,” Father Rodriguez said. “If the church is crucified, it will be repeating the experience of its founder. And it would leave behind something so deep as to be inextinguishable. Or how is it that [Catholicism] survived 300 years in Japan without a single priest, through the efforts of a few laymen and some women? If God was not working explicitly there, how did the church survive?”
In Rome these days, it seems impossible that the Catholic Church might be reduced one day to a lonely voice in the wilderness; Francis and his joyful faith inspire millions not only with a renewed belief in God but in a living and lively religion. One had just to watch him during the open-air Easter Mass in April, in which the pope and his people deployed every sign and symbol to create a beautiful spectacle of meaning: The steps of St. Peter’s were transformed into a garden, deacons and lectors—men and women!—from Korea, Germany, China, and the Middle East read from the Bible, a chorus from the Eastern Orthodox Church sang in strange and powerful harmony, Russian patriarchs celebrated alongside Francis… and the pope looked tired and aged throughout. But he positively bounded toward the Popemobile at the end, like a child who has unexpectedly been offered his favorite peanut-butter sandwich. Refusing assistance, he climbed on energetically, as if to say, Let’s go! And it was the cheering and laughing crowds and the pope’s hugging and blessing ritual all over again, bathing in the People, as the Spanish saying goes, as the Popemobile wove through the ecstatic crowds.
Alma Guillermoprieto is the author of “Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution” and “Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America.” This piece was edited by Mark Lotto, fact-checked by Ben Phelan, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Read a Spanish translation of this story here.