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Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin'

Inside the Pope's gentle revolution

January 28, 2014 7:15 AM ET
Pope Francis
Pope Francis
Stefano Spaziani

Nearly every Wednesday in Rome, the faithful and the curious gather in St. Peter's Square for a general audience with the pope. Since the election of the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio last March, attendance at papal events has tripled to 6.6 million. On a recent chilly morning in December, the thousands of amassed pilgrims appear to gleam in the sunlight, covering the square like a pixelated carpet. Maybe it's all the smartphones raised to the heavens.

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Up close, Pope Francis, the 266th vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, a man whose obvious humility, empathy and, above all, devotion to the economically disenfranchised has come to feel perfectly suited to our times, looks stouter than on television. Having famously dispensed with the more flamboyant pontifical accessories, he's also surprisingly stylish, today wearing a double-breasted white overcoat, white scarf and slightly creamier cassock, all impeccably tailored.

The topic of Francis' catechesis, or teaching, is Judgment Day, though, true to form, he does not try to conjure images of fire and brimstone. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, speaking on the topic, once said, "Today we are used to thinking: 'What is sin? God is great, he understands us, so sin does not count; in the end God will be good toward all.' It's a nice hope. But there is justice, and there is real blame."

Francis, 77, by contrast, implores the crowd to think of the prospect of meeting one's maker as something to look forward to, like a wedding, where Jesus and all of the saints in heaven will be waiting with open arms. He looks up from his script twice to repeat key lines: avanti senza paura ("go without fear") and che quel giudizio finale è già in atto ("the final judgment is already happening"). Coming from this pope, the latter point sounds more like a friendly reminder. His voice is disarmingly gentle, even when amplified over a vast public square.

Eventually, he moves to greet the crowd. Benedict, a dour academic, kept this portion of the general audience to a minimum. But Francis, like Bill Clinton, thrives on personal contact, and he spends the better part of an hour greeting believers. Next to the dais, a rowdy hometown team of Italians, a couple of whom spoke loudly on their cellphones throughout the pope's sermon, have their cameras out like paparazzi. "Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!" they shout, shrilly and incessantly, trying to get the Holy Father of the Catholic Church to gaze in their direction. The most shameless hold up children. "Papa Francesco!" they cry. "I bambini! I bambini!"

It's a funny thing, papal celebrity. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio had never been an especially gifted public speaker. But now that he's Pope Francis, his recognizable humanity comes off as positively revolutionary. Against the absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican, a world still run like a medieval court, Francis' election represents what his friend Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist who has known him for a decade, calls "a scandal of normality." Since his election last March, Francis has consistently confounded expectations with the simplest of gestures: surprising desk clerks at the hotel where he'd been staying during the papal conclave by showing up to pay his own bill; panicking bodyguards by swigging from a cup of maté (the highly caffeinated tealike beverage popular throughout South America) handed to him by a stranger during a visit to Brazil; cracking up cardinals with jokes at his own expense hours after being elected (to those assembled at his first official dinner as pope, he deadpanned, "May God forgive you for what you've done").

After the disastrous papacy of Benedict, a staunch traditionalist who looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares, Francis' basic mastery of skills like smiling in public seemed a small miracle to the average Catholic. But he had far more radical changes in mind. By eschewing the papal palace for a modest two-room apartment, by publicly scolding church leaders for being "obsessed" with divisive social issues like gay marriage, birth control and abortion ("Who am I to judge?" Francis famously replied when asked his views on homosexual priests) and – perhaps most astonishingly of all – by devoting much of his first major written teaching to a scathing critique of unchecked free-market capitalism, the pope revealed his own obsessions to be more in line with the boss' son.

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The touchingly enduring Mr. Smith Goes to Washington/Bulworth/Aaron Sorkin fantasy in which a noble political figure finally tells the American people the truth tends not to happen in real-life democracy, you may have noticed. There's too much money, too many special interests infecting electoral politics. Such a scenario could probably take place only in an arcane throwback of an institution like the Vatican, where secret ballots and an utter absence of transparency made the rise of an unknown quantity like Bergoglio possible. Had the race instead been for an obscure House seat in Kentucky, the opposition research team would have reduced his campaign to rubble within a couple of weeks.

By all accounts, the papal conclave that elevated Bergoglio assumed it was electing a fairly anodyne compromise candidate. Cardinals liked the idea of a pope from Latin America, one of the Church's leading growth markets. They also responded well to a stirring three-minute speech Bergoglio gave during the conclave, in which he said the Church, in order to survive, must stop "living within herself, of herself, for herself."

But he gave no other indication that he'd be any kind of change agent. In the days after his election, most newspapers described him as a safe, conservative choice. Bergoglio himself had already picked out a retirement spot back home in Argentina, where he fully expected to return after participating in the conclave as a voter. "When he first found out he was elected," says Piqué, "he didn't know if it was a dream or a nightmare. I'm sure he's feeling like he's in a cage."

There would be many reasonable ways to respond to this new reality. Stoical Christian resignation. A cry of "Why me, Lord?" One could also be invigorated by the challenge, and maybe even decide to cause some trouble.

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