Even power that's technically absolute has its limits, though, at least in a place as byzantine and disposed to palace intrigue as the Vatican. Lifers in the Curia, essentially medieval courtiers, adapt, confident they'll likely outlast any individual head of state. "If you don't go after the culture of the place, it'll be, 'OK, we're doing humility and simplicity now? Fine,' and nothing else will change," says the Vatican clergyman. He believes for any reform efforts to stand a chance, Francis must first "separate the Vatican from the Italians," who dominate the top levels of cardinals and comprise the bulk of the nearly 3,000 laypeople in charge of the everyday operations of the place. "If you want to end a culture of secrecy and impenetrable bureaucracy," says the clergyman, "you certainly don't want Italians running things!"
This won't be easy. Italian stereotypes aside, bureaucrats of any stripe have the power to slow change with "foot-dragging, dead letters, in all kinds of small ways," says the Vaticanisti. "You can shuffle around the upper layers of the bureaucracy all you want, but those lower levels are much harder to switch. No one gets fired here. Never, ever. This pope isn't going to come in like Jack Welch and start cutting. They didn't fire the butler!" (It's true: He was eventually pardoned and now works in a Vatican children's hospital.)
The Vatican clergyman adds, "The Curia bureaucracy are waiting to see what happens. I've heard whispers of 'OK, when are we getting back to business?' So far, it's not happening. The insecurity is good. I've never fully understood this place, but now they don't, either." Adds John Thavis, author of The Vatican Diaries, "I've covered the Vatican for 30 years, and the reaction from the old guard to this pope is the least enthusiastic I've ever seen. They no longer control the game." Other employees have been even less circumspect. "Some of the higher-up cardinals think he's reckless, that he doesn't know what he's doing," says the Vaticanisti.
In the months ahead, Francis will continue to meet with the eight cardinals he has appointed to a special task force to reform the Curia. He's also set up a commission to advise him on how to best deal with the problem of pedophilia within the church, ranging from preventative measures to the counseling of victims. Outside consultants have been hired to examine the workings of the Vatican bank, where Francis has already forced out several officials. And when the bishops gather in the fall for their next synod, or general assembly, which will focus on the theme of family, they'll have to reckon with the results of a new questionnaire that's been distributed to Catholic parishes by the pope, soliciting opinions about same-sex marriage, premarital sex, divorce and contraception. For an organization as rigidly hierarchical as the Catholic Church, such a nod to democracy is profound, and potentially earthshaking.
Back in the United States, Father Reese says Francis' stratospheric popularity brings its own momentum, that even bishops or priests who fall on the more conservative end of the spectrum have been enjoying the filled pews at their churches, the random compliments from parishioners and even strangers on the street. "The people Francis is going to have the most trouble with are the ideologues," Reese says. "They're basically like the Tea Party. They've made up their minds. They don't get it. And unless they go through some major conversion, they ain't gonna get it."
On my last Sunday in Rome, I return to the Vatican for the pope's weekly Angelus, a short prayer delivered from a window in the Apostolic Palace. Outside St. Peter's Square, hawkers are selling everything from Sistine Chapel tours to airbrushed paintings of Tupac, Bob Marley and the pope. I ask one of the vendors, a tall Belizean with a shaved head, if the increased crowds under Francis have been good for business. He scowls and shakes his head, then answers in perfect, New York-inflected English, "Naw, this guy, all he does is talk about the poor, and so he's bringing in these poorer tourists from places like Argentina. They ain't got no money, these people! When Ratzinger was pope, Germans would pull up on a bus. They're organized, they spend! Now, everyone wants a discount."
Today, the square is mostly packed with families, their children clutching little bambinelli figurines of the baby Jesus. The pope will be offering a special Christmas blessing of the Nativity figures. Three nuns in habits manage to squeeze to the front with impunity, like cute girls at a rock concert.
Finally, the pope emerges, waving from the distant window, a tiny figure the size of a single almond. "Fratelli e sorelle, buongiorno," he says, blessing us and our baby Jesuses, his voice echoing from hidden speakers and seeming slightly God-like. Toward the end of his prayer, it begins to rain – at first just a light drizzle, but then the sky really opens up. When the pope finishes, he goes off script and tells us how much it displeases him that he can't be down in the piazza with us in the horrible weather. He seems to really mean it.
Is he lonely up there? Vallely's book describes a man who, when not out among the people, leads a solitary monklike existence in which "he looks after his interior life and doesn't really have a social one." Those are the words of one of his closest aides in Buenos Aires, who adds, "If you define friendship as having fun with people, then he has no friends. Friendship is a symmetrical relationship. His relationships are not like that. People believe they are his friends, but he never goes to dinner at their homes."
Down in the rainy square, the crowd cheers for its new friend, Cool Pope Francis, until he retreats back into the mysteries of the walled city he now rules. I'm reminded of another moment from the press conference on the plane, when a reporter attempted to pin Francis down on gay marriage and abortion. And what is His Holiness' own position on these matters? The pope's artful dodge struck me as brilliantly Clintonian. "That of the Church," Francis said simply. "I'm a son of the Church."
He didn't add, because he didn't have to, that he's the father now, too.
This story is from the February 13th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies