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Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin'

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Bergoglio's ascension to the top of the Argentine church coincided with a national crisis that would leave indelible marks on his thinking: The year he took office, Argentina's economy plunged into a brutal recession, a situation that worsened when the International Monetary Fund pressured the government to undertake harsh austerity measures. More than half of the population fell into poverty, bringing a level of misery unfathomable in the United States. Riots broke out; paco, a cracklike drug made from cheap cocaine residue and additives like sulfuric acid, rat poison and kerosene, swept the shantytowns. Things began to turn around in 2003, when the country decided to default on its debts to the IMF, which, to the anti-globalization left, had come to be seen as a thuggish loan shark undermining the sovereignty of the developing world. It was a move that surely did not go unnoticed by Bergoglio, who, in Evangelii Gaudium, lashes out at "ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace . . . reject[ing] the right of states . . . to exercise any form of control" and calls the deification of the free market "a new tyranny . . . which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules."

A slapping-around by the forces of global capitalism tends to focus the mind, even one preoccupied with the mystical. You can see how "obsessing" over gay marriage and birth control might begin to feel like a first-world problem. Though still outwardly orthodox, Bergoglio joked to a friend about church leaders who "want to stick the whole world inside a condom." He also made enemies of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband (and predecessor), Néstor Kirchner, embarrassing them with denunciations of feeble poverty initiatives and unbridled corruption. One of the U.S. diplomatic cables released in the WikiLeaks dump described Bergoglio as a "leader of the opposition"; when news broke that Bergoglio had been elected pope, Kirchner allies in Congress passed on a tribute in favor of testimonials devoted to the late Hugo Chávez.

Piqué says Bergoglio became a convenient foil for the Kirchners, who "didn't have any real opposition, so it was useful for them to have an enemy to talk about." In Piqué's reading, Cristina Kirchner cannily employed a popular same-sex-marriage initiative as a wedge issue. Bergoglio, behind the scenes, pushed a compromise involving civil unions, but failed to win over conservative bishops. A private letter he wrote describing gay marriage as "the total rejection of the law of God" leaked, bruising his image, though Vallely argues he wrote the letter as a strategic means of currying favor with the conservatives. Marcelo Márquez, a gay-rights leader in Buenos Aires, delivered Bergoglio an angry note – and received a call an hour later. "He listened to my views with a great deal of respect," Márquez told The New York Times. They met on two occasions. Márquez told the future pope about his marriage plans, and departed with a gift: a copy of Bergoglio's biography.

Last February 27th, Bergoglio flew to Rome (insisting on coach, though the Vatican had sent a first-class ticket) and checked into a spartan hotel (60 euros per night, including breakfast) catering to priests. It seems unlikely that the job of pope was something Bergoglio sought or had even mentally prepared for. He later remarked, in a leaked private speech, that he'd come to Rome "only with the necessary clothes. . . . I did not have any chance! In the London betting houses I was in 44th place. Look at that. The one who bet on me won a lot, of course!"

Going into the conclave, there were three acknowledged front-runners, says Father Reese, who covered the event for the National Catholic Reporter. Bergoglio was not among them. Nearly every Vatican watcher assumed that even though he'd been runner-up to Ratzinger in the 2005 conclave, he'd aged out of any serious consideration. "If they had been united around one candidate, it would have been all over," Reese says. "The problem was, it looked like each group hated the other two groups." Because of the infighting, in Reese's estimation, none of the three front-runners would throw their votes to their rivals, so they wound up backing the dark horse.

When Bergoglio emerged as winner, the world media largely shrugged. A white guy of European origin in his late seventies: What a radical choice! The Washington Post claimed "Francis's humble ethos is matched with an unerring conservatism closer in substance to Benedict." A Slate column headlined WHY POPE FRANCIS MAY BE A CATHOLIC NIGHTMARE argued that the new papacy might be "one more in the pile of recent Catholic . . . mediocrities" and speculated that "an older pope who does not know which curial offices and officers need the ax will be even easier to ignore than Benedict."

Even within the Vatican, no one knew quite what to expect. "Ironically, I thought he'd be a disaster, PR-wise, because he doesn't do interviews," says Greg Burke, a media-savvy, former Fox News reporter (and lay member of Opus Dei) hired by Benedict to assist in the Holy See's public-relations efforts in the wake of VatiLeaks. But the media's normally infallible cynicism melted in the presence of such pontifical delightfulness. He canceled his own newspaper subscription, cold-called people who'd sent him letters ("Ciao, Michele, it's Pope Francis," he told one stunned Italian) and said nice things about atheists. A plotline that would've sounded preposterous six months earlier swept the secular media – that of "Cool Pope Francis," to borrow a headline from Gawker. (Gawker!) But this charm belied Bergoglio's dexterity – and, if the situation demands, ruthlessness – as an operator. Piqué calls him "a political animal," and indeed, over the past 10 months, Bergoglio has shown himself to be a stealth enforcer, capable of summoning that old authoritarian steel if it serves a higher purpose.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, discovered this Francis the hard way. Burke had long been a darling of far-right Catholic circles. In a 2009 interview with The National Review, columnist Kathryn Jean Lopez asked the cardinal if he thought "Catholic voters collaborated with evil when they voted for Obama." Responded Burke, "Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda . . . could not have voted for him with a clear conscience."

Burke later became the only clergyman of any serious stature willing to publicly criticize Pope Francis, telling a Catholic television network, "One gets the impression, or it's interpreted this way in the media, that he thinks we're talking too much about abortion, too much about the integrity of marriage as between one man and one woman. But we can never talk enough about that." A week later, Francis essentially sacked Burke, removing him from his post on the influential Vatican Congregation of Bishops, a job that had afforded him kingmaker's status when it came to selecting new bishops in the United States. (Popes choose bishops the way presidents choose federal judges. Under the past two popes, with the help of advisers like Burke, the leadership of the 195 Catholic dioceses in the United States has become increasingly conservative; this will likely change under Francis.)

In July, Francis forbade the traditionalist Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate from saying the Latin Mass and launched an investigation of their finances. Some saw this move as a direct jab at Benedict, who had loosened restrictions on such ultratraditionalists. Francis' disdain for ultratraditionalists dates back to Buenos Aires, where the leaders of one of the groups supported by Benedict had praised the military junta and another member turned out to be a Holocaust denier. A pair of Italian journalists with links to the order attacked the pope's decision as "a slap in the face" and suggested that "the new pontificate seems to love the cameras and being in the spotlight." By the end of the year, Francis had shuttered the friars' seminary and suspended the order's ability to ordain new priests. His chief investigator described the founder of the order, who'd been banished to a religious home, as running a cult of personality.

Francis has also begun shifting the makeup of the College of Cardinals, where Italians have traditionally been overrepresented. His first round of appointments included cardinals from Haiti, Nicaragua and the Ivory Coast; of his 16 voting appointees, nine were from Asia, Latin America and Africa. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state under Benedict, portrayed as a scheming power player in the VatiLeaks documents, had backed conservative cardinals like Guido Pozzo (in charge of reaching out to ultratraditionalists) and Mauro Piacenza (who oversaw the clergy and was known as a firm supporter of priestly celibacy, which many believe might change under Francis). Both have since been demoted by the pope. Piacenza's curial version of Siberia is something called the Apostolic Penitentiary, not an actual jail but an obscure Vatican office where Piacenza will spend his days adjudicating extremely rare and esoteric sins (e.g., the desecration of Communion wafers). Francis replaced Bertone with Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who has said in an interview that priestly celibacy is not Church dogma – meaning, it can be changed.

Even simple gestures, like Francis' rejection of the papal palace, went beyond mere symbolism. "The main reason he didn't want to live there mostly had to do with autonomy," says a Vatican clergyman who has worked closely with multiple popes. "In the palace, they can control what gets to you." Now, while Francis' days in some ways follow an expected papal itinerary – early rising and prayer, morning Mass, visits with dignitaries and heads of state, the occasional off-site trip to a hospital or a church – the space he's carved out for himself has allowed for an unprecedented degree of independence. While past popes maintained detailed public schedules, Francis handwrites his own agenda in a private datebook. "This is unheard of," a senior Vaticanisti who wishes to remain anonymous tells me. "Aides who'd ordinarily know what's going on have to piece things together by talking to other people." Confirms Father Lombardi, the Vatican press secretary, with the hint of a sigh, "Before, I was in contact with the Curia and could ask them what the daily agenda is. Now, we have to discover what the agenda is. He is very free in organizing it."

By most accounts, Francis is constantly on the telephone (landline; he's never owned a mobile phone or a computer), consulting with trusted friends and colleagues. " John Paul II and Benedict both had an inner circle, so this is very disconcerting to people on the inside," the Vaticanisti says. "Does Francis have a war room? No, probably not. But who is he talking to back there? No one really knows."

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