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.
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.
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.
Alongside many noble men of God, there have been plenty of truly terrible popes, as John Julius Norwich’s history of the papacy, Absolute Monarchs, which often reads like a freaky hybrid of House of Cards and Game of Thrones, makes clear. There was Stephen VI, who exhumed the eight-month-old corpse of his predecessor, Formosus, and subjected the body, dressed in papal vestments and propped up on a throne, to a mock trial. (The corpse was found guilty and thrown into the Tiber.) Writing of the Church under Clement VI, elected in 1342, Petrarch described prostitutes “swarm[ing] on the papal beds,” adding, “I will not speak of adultery, seduction, rape, incest; these are only the prelude to their orgies.” Norwich quotes the writer Gerard Noel on Pope Innocent VIII, who “grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman.” The loathsome, anti-Semitic Paul IV “took a special delight in the Inquisition” and managed to halve the Jewish population of Rome in five years. Pius XI described Mussolini as “a man sent by Providence.”
Benedict XVI would certainly not merit inclusion in this rogues’ gallery, but it’s hard to imagine a worse choice to meet the particular challenges facing the Catholic Church over the past decade than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Prior to being named pope in 2005, Ratzinger had served the role as chief doctrinal enforcer for his predecessor, the beloved, but also quite reactionary John Paul II. In his fight against the liberalizing efforts of the Second Vatican Council, JPII, as he’s known around the Vatican, cracked down on progressive Catholic groups like the Jesuits, while welcoming controversial hypertraditionalists Opus Dei into the Church’s mainstream. Lay “numerary” members of the latter group take vows of celibacy and practice corporal mortification: whipping themselves or wearing a cilice, a spiked metal chain bound to the thigh as a penance and a reminder of Jesus’ suffering.
A 1986 letter issued by Ratzinger, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” (also known as Homosexualitatis Problema), described homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil.” Leading proponents of liberation theology, an explosive, Marxist-tinged Catholic movement that swept through Latin America in the Seventies and Eighties, were marginalized by Ratzinger’s office and seen as heretics. At the same time, his team responded to the endless pedophilia revelations that wracked the Church in recent decades with “denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction,” to quote an exhaustive 2010 New York Times investigation.
After he became Pope Benedict in 2005, Ratzinger couldn’t seem to catch a break, and he certainly lacked the ability to apply his widely acknowledged brilliance as an academic to snuffing out fires in the real world. In 2009, a massive money-laundering scandal was uncovered at the Vatican bank, which controls about $8.2 billion in assets. Then came the betrayal known as VatiLeaks, in which Benedict’s own trusted butler stole reams of secret documents revealing embarrassing inner workings of the Holy See. The Italian press thrilled to the juiciest particulars, including allegations of a gay smear campaign, missing cash, attempted tax evasion (abetted by the Berlusconi administration), runaway spending (e.g., a $350,000 crèche) and suspicious gifts (e.g., the $100,000 worth of truffles offered to the pope by an Italian businessman).
Reportedly, the tipping point for Benedict came after a trio of cardinals charged with investigating VatiLeaks submitted their report, revealing a network of gay Vatican employees and outsiders making threats of exposure. “He just didn’t have the personality or the strength to deal with everything that was happening,” one Vatican insider tells me. Shortly after Benedict shocked the world last February by announcing he’d be the first pope to resign in more than 700 years, one final indignity followed him out the door: the disclosure in La Repubblica that Italy’s largest gay bathhouse happened to be a tenant of a building owned by the Vatican.
Through it all, though, as church attendance in the United States and Europe continued to plummet, one group remained loyal to its pope: ultraconservative American Catholics. In particular, politicians. The religious right’s pact with the GOP had initially been brokered by evangelicals like Pat Robertson, historically never huge fans of their spiritual brethren in Rome. (As recently as 2011, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod attempted to clarify accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry by explaining that his group “primarily views the office of the papacy as the Antichrist, not the individual popes themselves.”) But the lines have blurred. Right-wing Catholics like Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush populate GOP presidential fields past and future, and Rick Santorum as well as Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas have been linked to Opus Dei.
Open dissent, of course, is a rare thing in an organization as hierarchical as the Catholic Church. But I figured if any group would express a distinct lack of enthusiasm about their new Jesuit pope, it would be Opus Dei, and so one afternoon, I met up with Father John Paul Wauck, an American Opus Dei priest who has been living in Rome for nearly 20 years, where he teaches literature at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Before taking his vows, he worked as a political speechwriter for William Barr, the attorney general under George H.W. Bush, and Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, whom Wauck describes as “the last of the big pro-life Democrats.” A trim, cheery 50-year-old who grew up in the same Chicago suburb as Hillary Clinton, Wauck displays a Midwestern eagerness to please as he leads me on a tour of Holy Cross. Up on the roof, which provides a panoramic view of Rome, he points out a villa where Galileo was imprisoned by the Church during his Inquisition for promoting the dangerous idea that the Earth revolves around the sun. Downstairs, we duck into an 18th-century chapel where, Wauck says, Mozart played as a boy. Wauck directs my eye to a painting of Aloysius Gonzaga, the great Jesuit saint. At Gonzaga’s feet, a fat cherub holds a tiny spiked whip. “Corporal mortification used to be universal!” Wauck says. “Until fairly recently, pretty much all religious orders did it. Mother Teresa’s nuns still do. It’s not something unique to Opus Dei. We just didn’t abandon it.”
Wauck, who does not seem all that conservative for a member of Opus Dei – at one point, he asks excitedly if I’ve read Eminent Hipsters, the new memoir by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan – nonetheless downplays the pope’s call for a truce in the culture wars. “I certainly have no problem at all with anything the pope says,” he tells me. “I do think there has been a bit of selective reading. People are emphasizing certain things and forgetting other things that he also said.” For instance, Wauck points out that the pope often speaks about the devil, “much more than I ever remember Benedict doing.” Likewise, he notes that Francis’ comments about the church’s obsession with gay marriage and abortion did not propose any real doctrinal changes. “The pope never said those issues weren’t important,” Wauck says. “He said that when we talk about these things, we have to talk about them in a context. And who would disagree with that? So when people are trying to figure out what kind of guy is this, you have to hear all the bells, not just the ones that sound like, ‘Oh, he’s going to change everything.'”
This is a common retort among conservative Catholics about Pope Francis: You guys in the secular liberal media just aren’t listening. Santorum has insisted the pope’s comments on gays and abortion were taken out of context. New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a conservative who had made a number of papal long lists in March, also wasted no time in translating Francis’ message, telling CBS This Morning, “Pope Francis would be the first to say, ‘My job isn’t to change church teaching. My job is to present it as clearly as possible. . . . While certain acts may be wrong . . . we will always love and respect the person and treat the person with dignity.'”
While much of this sounds like wishful thinking, they also have a point: The pope’s tonal changes don’t necessarily signal a wild swing from tradition. Francis has ruled out the ordination of women, for example, and he still considers abortion an evil. But those obsessed with contextualizing Francis would do well to take a look at the impromptu press conference he granted last summer to gathered Vaticanisti (members of the Vatican press corps) during the flight back from a trip to Rio. Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, told me he’d expected the press conference would go about 20 minutes. It lasted for nearly 90, and ended up including the pope’s famous “Who am I to judge?” response, which is normally the only part of the exchange that’s quoted. But reading the full transcript or, better yet, watching longer excerpts on YouTube helps to convey the true context.
A reporter asks Francis, who is standing at the head of the aisle, about the existence of a “gay lobby” within the Vatican. Francis begins by making a joke, saying he hasn’t yet run into anyone with a special gay identification card. But then his face becomes serious and, gesturing for emphasis, he says it’s important to distinguish between lobbies, which are bad – “A lobby of the greedy, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies!” he says later in the press conference – and individual gay people who are well-intentioned and seeking God. It’s while speaking to the latter point that he makes the “Who am I to judge?” remark, and this part of the video is really worth watching, because, aside from the entirely mind-blowing fact of a supposedly infallible pope asking this question at all, his answer is never really translated properly. What he actually says is, “Mah, who am I to judge?” In Italian, mah is an interjection with no exact English parallel, sort of the verbal equivalent of an emphatic shrug. My dad’s use of mah most often precedes his resignedly pouring another splash of grappa into his coffee. The closest translation I can come up with is “Look, who the hell knows?” If you watch the video, Francis even pinches his fingers together for extra Italian emphasis. Then he flashes a knowing smirk.
Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, says the arguments about style versus substance when it comes to Pope Francis are missing the point entirely. “In the Catholic Church, style is substance,” Reese says. “We are a church of symbols. That’s what we call the sacrament: symbols that give us grace. These things really matter. So Francis is already changing the church in real ways through his words and symbolic gestures. He could sit in his office, go through canon law and start changing rules and regulations. But that’s not what people want him to do.”
Reese, who is 68, used to be editor in chief of America, the Jesuit magazine that published a long interview with Pope Francis in the fall. Reese was forced to resign in 2005 after the Vatican – specifically, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just before he became Pope Benedict – repeatedly complained about articles challenging church orthodoxy on issues like stem cell research, gay marriage and ecumenicalism. “I was Ratzinger’s last victim,” Reese jokes. The election of Francis took him completely by surprise. He hadn’t expected to see another pope who created such hope for the church.
“The problem with the last two popes is they were academics at heart,” Reese says. “Both had taught at universities where students write down everything you say, go home, memorize it and give it back on an exam. The European educational system is even worse that way than the U.S. The word ‘magisterial’ comes from magister, ‘the teacher,’ and that was their attitude.”
For Reese, this pedagogical obsession, which he traces back to “Martin Luther, a brilliant theologian, leading everyone astray as far as the Church is concerned,” gets to the heart of what’s driving conservatives crazy about the loose-speaking ways of the new pope. “You’ve heard the phrase about generals fighting the last war?” Reese asks. “Well, the Church has been doing that for centuries. We’re still fighting the Reformation!”
Thus far, Francis’ humble lifestyle decisions as pope – riding around town in a Ford Focus instead of a chauffeured Mercedes limo, for example – have been terrific and all, but the hosannas directed his way can feel a bit like he’s being graded on a curve. Yes, obviously you shouldn’t live in an insane palace if you’re the head of a religion based on principles of charity and compassion and founded by a homeless proto-hippie. But Francis threw down a real marker in November, with the release of his first apostolic exhortation, or official written teaching. Apostolic exhortations under John Paul II and Benedict tended toward the dogmatic (JPII’s Familiaris Consortio restated orthodox Church teaching on birth control and the traditional family) or the wonky (Benedict’s Sacramentum Caritatis spent 32,000 words on the Eucharist). In this context, the blistering attacks on income inequality in Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) resonate like a bomb.
He describes a “culture of prosperity” that “deadens us” to the misery of the poor: “All those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.” Debt, corruption, tax evasion, mass layoffs (“attempting to increase profits by reducing the workforce and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded”) and environmental degradation all come under attack. Some people, Francis wrote, “continue to defend trickle-down theories,” a belief that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and one that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. . . . Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”
It’s one thing to question God’s will when it comes to sexual morality, but for American conservatives, taking on the sacred economic doctrines of Ronald Reagan is a mortal sin. Sarah Palin told CNN some of the pope’s statements have “taken me aback” and sounded “kind of liberal.” (She later apologized for even such a mild rebuke.) Rush Limbaugh was less circumspect, calling the pope’s message “pure Marxism.” Ken Langone, the billionaire Home Depot co-founder and would-be Republican kingmaker, told Cardinal Dolan that a multimillion-dollar restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral might run into funding difficulties if wealthy Catholics keep getting their feelings hurt by “exclusionary” papal remarks.
And yet, in a stroke of what one might be tempted to call divine justice, the GOP, having played the God card so shamelessly for so many years, finds itself largely powerless to rebut the most prominent critic of income inequality on the planet. Paul Ryan, the architect of a budget proposal so regressive he drew the ire of a group of nuns, explained away Francis’ analysis by saying the pope never experienced “real capitalism” in Argentina. (Shantytowns are bad and all, but come on: Has His Holiness been apprised of the employer mandates in Obamacare?) Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, seems to see the writing on the wall, telling The New York Times, “I think the pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.”
The reaction on the other side of the spectrum has been less complicated. “Pope Francis is a gift from heaven, a prophetic voice willing to be a critic of capitalism and imperialism,” says Cornel West, long a leading voice on the Christian left. “I don’t want to fetishize the pope. He heads a deeply patriarchal and homophobic organization that I’m critical of. But I love who he is, in terms of what he says, and the impact of his words on progressive forces around the world.”
Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires, but his parents were Italian; his father fled Italy when Mussolini came to power. The family settled in Flores, a leafy, solidly middle-class neighborhood. There were many Italian relatives around, including a great-uncle whom Bergoglio described in a 2010 book of interviews as a “rascally old man” who “taught us to sing some rather risqué ditties in Genoese dialect. That explains why the only things I can say in Genoese do not bear repeating.”
Buenos Aires was a cosmopolitan city, where vestiges of Spanish colonialism blended with an aspirational embrace of European culture. (There’s an old joke about Argentines being Spanish-speaking Italians who think they’re British.)
Bergoglio studied chemistry at a technical school, worked in a laboratory, moonlighted as a bouncer at a Buenos Aires bar, loved soccer and dancing the tango. Then, at 17, while meeting some friends, he walked past a church and had an epiphany. In an interview with a Buenos Aires radio station, Bergoglio described feeling “like somebody grabbed me from inside and took me to the confessional. . . . While I was there I felt that I had to become a priest, and I didn’t doubt it.”
Bergoglio didn’t tell anyone about this incident for the next four years, while he continued to work and go to school, but in 1958, at age 21, he entered a Jesuit seminary. His mother was unhappy with his decision, and for years refused to visit him. “My mother experienced it as a plundering,” Bergoglio recalled. “‘I don’t know, I don’t see you as . . . you should wait a bit. . . . You’re the eldest. . . . Keep working. . . . Finish university,’ she said. The truth is, my mother was extremely upset.” Bergoglio later said he was drawn to the Jesuits because of their emphasis on obedience and discipline, and also because he hoped to work as a missionary in Japan, where the Jesuits had been the first to introduce Christianity in the 1540s, though health problems – he’d lost part of a lung after a bout with pneumonia – prevented him from such travel. Instead, he taught literature at a Jesuit school, bringing in the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges for a lecture and, eventually, at the age of 36, found himself appointed provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, which meant he oversaw the activities of the religious order throughout the country. “That was crazy,” the pope acknowledged in his interview in America. “I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself.” According to Paul Vallely’s biography Pope Francis, Untying the Knots, Bergoglio was a divisive figure, seen by some Argentine Jesuits, ironically enough, as a conservative throwback clinging to pre-Vatican II tradition. Bergoglio used the word “authoritarianism” to describe his leadership style back then, admitting, “I did not always do the necessary consultation. . . . My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults.”
Bergoglio’s term as provincial superior coincided with one of the most traumatic eras in his country’s history, the so-called Dirty War that tore Argentina apart in the wake of a 1976 military coup. For the next seven years, the country was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship; death squads terrorized the nation as tens of thousands of civilians were “disappeared.” The junta was outwardly Catholic, and many church leaders openly collaborated. One of the few Argentine bishops to speak out against the government was murdered in a faked car accident.
If there is anything close to a stain on Bergoglio’s record, it’s his behavior during this period. As a provincial superior, he had far less power or stature than a bishop, and public denunciations of the junta would have likely gotten him killed. Defenders argue that he worked effectively behind the scenes, risking his own life by disguising hundreds of targeted civilians as seminarians and sneaking them out of the country. But critics believe he was complicit in the arrest and torture of a pair of activist Jesuits with whom he’d been feuding. Bergoglio has strongly denied the charge, insisting that he immediately “set the ball rolling” to orchestrate their release, but one of the priests, Orlando Yorio, wrote a book claiming Bergoglio had been the one who tipped off the junta. Yorio died in 2000. The other priest, Francisco Jalics, refutes Yorio’s account; in October, he met with the pope in Rome, and they had previously celebrated Mass together. Elisabetta Piqué, who has spent much of her career as a journalist covering wars, believes Jalics, dismissing the controversy as “totally fake, as we know now. Bergoglio has a clear conscience. He’s at peace with himself. He did whatever he could.”
At the same time, liberation theology was spreading throughout Latin America. Its Marxist focus on the class struggle and open calls for revolution – some priests actually took up arms and joined groups like the Sandinistas – petrified Catholic traditionalists. John Paul II’s Vatican denounced liberation theology as heresy and all but smothered it (clandestinely abetted, in many countries, by the CIA). In Vallely’s telling, Bergoglio was also hostile to the movement during the Dirty War, even though the spirit of liberation theology has clearly influenced his own papacy, most markedly in the language of Evangelii Gaudium. He may have been responding to pressure from Rome in obedient Jesuit fashion; he also clearly worried that overtly radical activity by any of his priests could make the entire order a target of the junta. Whatever his true feelings back then, as pope, Francis has made his sympathies clear: Last September, he invited the Peruvian founder of the movement, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, to visit him at the Vatican.
Bergoglio’s self-described “authoritarian” reign ended in banishment. After his stint as provincial, his new Jesuit superiors received so many complaints about his difficult personality that he was eventually assigned to a new post in Córdoba, 400 miles away. There, Vallely writes, he “brooded,” feeling “sidelined and belittled.” The colleagues he’d alienated could barely recognize him when he returned to the capital in 1992. The chastening had forced Bergoglio to mature, mellow, open his mind. Six years later, in 1998, he became archbishop of Buenos Aires. Foreshadowing his behavior as pope, he rejected many of the princely trappings of his new office, getting around town via bus, residing in a simple apartment and cooking his own meals on weekends. An interviewer once asked if he was a good cook, to which Bergoglio responded, “Well, no one ever died.” He would ask friends to tape CDs for him, because all he had was a cassette player.
Much of his attention was focused on the dispossessed: He wandered the city’s worst neighborhoods, kissed the feet of AIDS patients in a hospice, heard confessions from prostitutes on park benches, disguised himself in a poncho to march in a slum procession, stood up to drug dealers who threatened one of his priests. Piqué’s husband, Gerry O’Connell, also a journalist, who covers the Vatican for La Stampa, recalls visiting the archbishop’s palatial residence shortly after Bergoglio took office. The “grand meeting room,” where previous archbishops had received visitors, was now stuffed with boxes of clothes and food for the poor. “It was amazing – he’d turned it into a storeroom!” O’Connell says.
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.”
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.