The Pope’s programme: radical simplicity, geared to mission

[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome]

Pope Francis address to mediaMassimo Franco, writing in Corriere Della Sera, believes that “the era of the Pope-King and of the Vatican court is over”.

While he was still in the Sistine Chapel, his aides had set up a throne-like chair on a platform for him to sit on while the cardinals pledged their obedience one at a time. He ignored it, and remained standing while they each greeted him.

bergoglio3Less than an hour later, he shunned the papal limousine that was waiting to take him to a Vatican residence for a meal, joining the other cardinals on the bus.

Only hours after his election the new Pope slipped out of the Vatican in an unmarked car to pray at a Rome basilica where the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, said his first Mass. And then he asked the driver to stop at the hotel for clergy in the centre of Rome where he had been staying before the conclave to pick up his bags and pay his bill “because he was concerned about giving a good example of what priests and bishops should do”, explained Fr Lombardi.

The new Pope has no close personal secretary or aide following him around. He is his own man.

On Thursday, Pope Francis broke the seals of the Papal Apartment in the Apostolic Palace to take possession of his new home. “There’s room for 300 people here,” he’s reported to have remarked. “I don’t need all this space.”

“We have to have patience, we are starting something new,” said Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, the day after Pope Francis’s election, adding: “There are a lot of things we don’t know yet.” His remarks, in response to a barrage of reporters’ questions, are an attempt to contain a mounting excitement in Rome at the implications of this new, unscripted approach.


Pope Francis I appears on the central balconyIn a sense, nothing has happened: the pontificate has barely begun. And yet within a few days Pope Francis has massively shifted the style of the papacy, rejecting elements of Counter-Reformation monarchy in favour of a new evangelical simplicity.

This was a papacy that began, unexpectedly, with buona sera. Pope Francis’ greeting to the world on the balcony of the loggia on Wednesday was direct, human and engaging. It was also humble: he asked the world to pray for him and with him. (For more analysis of that first greeting, see Greg Erlandson).

While Benedict XVI almost never made unprepared remarks, the Vatican said it had no text of a homily the pope was to read later that day at a Mass. On Thursday he again left the Vatican, incognito, to visit a sick friend in hospital.

As bishop he was used to travelling around Buenos Aires on public transport and cooking for himself in a small apartment. He has already told his fellow bishops in Argentina not to waste their money on travelling to Rome for his inauguration Mass on Tuesday but to give the money instead to the poor.

pope and dogOn Saturday, at a meeting with thousands of journalists, Pope Francis was warm, engaging, funny, and a compelling teacher. He had prepared remarks, but put them aside to tell a fascinating story about why he took the name Francis. After Cardinal Claudio Celli of the Council for Social Communications “presented” the audience to him, the pope spontaneously stood up from his chair and walked across the stage to embrace him. This “moving out towards others,” rather than remaining fixed to the spot and waiting to be addressed, is typical of the new style of Pope Francis. At the end of the audience, he greeted journalists and members of the Vatican communications team. One of them was blind, and had a guide dog. The Pope quite spontaneously reached down to touch it. poestrokesdog

When the Catholic Church ‘changes’, it is rescuing from its tradition something that has been put aside or eclipsed. Benedict XVI’s decision to resign was an example of a ‘lost tradition’, now recovered. As Pope Francis said yesterday to journalists, the Holy Spirit was behind that decision, just as it guided the decision of the College of Cardinals in conclave.


The new, evangelical simplicity of Pope Francis – symbolised for many in his choosing to wear ordinary black shoes instead of the traditional red ones – involves a repudiation of some of the quasi-monarchical, Counter-Reformation elements which had crept in over time. A sense of drift was reinforced by the many elements of dysfunction becoming apparent in the Curia in recent months, epitomised by the so-called ‘Vatileaks’ affair.

In a 2007 interview with the magazine 30 Days, the then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke of how the Holy Spirit “saves us from the dangers of a gnostic Church and a self-referential Church, and leads us to mission.”

In the address yesterday to journalists, he said the Holy Spirit was the real protagonist of the past few weeks. He believes the Holy Spirit is moving to rescue the Vatican – in danger of becoming self-referential, existing for its own sake – to turn it back to mission. In that same interview, asked about the greatest danger for the Church, he said:

It is what De Lubac calls ‘spiritual worldliness’. It is the greatest danger for the Church, for us, who are in the Church. ‘It is worse’, says De Lubac, ‘more disastrous than the infamous leprosy that disfigured the dearly beloved Bride at the time of the libertine popes’. Spiritual worldliness is putting oneself at the center. It is what Jesus saw going on among the Pharisees: ‘You who glorify yourselves. Who give glory to yourselves, the ones to the others’.

The Successor of St Peter, he said adamantly in the address to journalists, is not the point of the Church. “Christ remains the centre, not the Sucessor of Peter: Christ, Christ is the centre.  Christ is the fundamental point of reference, the heart of the Church.  Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.

All the stories about the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires coincide in highlighting his friendship with the people in the slums of Buenos Aires. He tripled the numbers of priests sent to work there, and was a regular visitor there, arriving, as ever, by public transport. He is fast becoming known as El papa de los villeros – “the pope of the slumdwellers”.


With real feeling he said yesterday – in his unscripted remarks – how he wants to see “a Church of the poor, a Church that is poor”. In these simple words of longing, and in his choice of name, Pope Francis has revealed his programme.

It is not a programme of ‘liberalisation’. Pope Francis, like Cardinal Bergoglio before him, will promote church teaching without fear or favour, raising his voice in favour of life, marriage, and justice, challenging the self-referential doctrines of modernity with the same impatient determination he is now challenging the self-referential trappings of Vatican superfluity.

Pope Francis is not a ‘moderniser’ He is, like the poverello of Assisi, a radical, and an evangeliser. He is equipping the Church for mission, and everything that stands in the way of that objective will be quietly dispensed with.

And the point of that will be none other than to better reveal Christ.

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