Francis has changed the face of the Papacy in his first 100 days
IF anyone doubted the Catholic Church's ability to manage change, the last few months have been a striking lesson. From the almost unthinkable scenario of a pope resigning, most Catholics quickly got comfortable with one pope in charge and a former pope living in a converted monastery in the Vatican Gardens.
It's 100 days since Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica as the successor to Benedict XVI, the first pope to resign in over 600 years. When Joseph Ratzinger had emerged as pope just eight years earlier, everyone had an opinion. For more conservative elements within the church, Ratzinger represented a perfect continuity from John Paul's unapologetic defence of the faith. For those pushing for dramatic change in the Catholic Church, Benedict carried a lot of baggage from his previous role as the church's chief doctrinal watchdog.
Pope Francis carried no such baggage and from the first moment he reached out to greet the crowd, the mood and tone was different. He had set aside the more regal papal robes and appealed to the people of Rome – whose bishop he now was – to pray for him.
Simplicity has been a hallmark of Francis's papacy in the first 100 days. And it has evidently struck a chord with people, even many who feel estranged from the church. Crowds attending his public appearances at the Vatican are enormous, and Francis is lapping it up. He is very comfortable in the role of 'parish priest of the world' and his simple to-the-point sermons indicate a man determined to be chiefly a shepherd. But there's steel too. "It is not possible to find Jesus outside the church," he said in a recent speech.
His simple decision not to move into the papal apartment, instead choosing to reside in the Vatican guesthouse, is a potent gesture that he does not want to be cut off. Even friends of Benedict's conceded in his declining years that he was isolated. Cardinal Bergoglio was elected on a pro-reform ticket after the piercing need for an overhaul of the Roman Curia emerged as a key concern as cardinals met in the wake of Benedict's resignation.
It's too early to say what form a Franciscan reform of the Vatican might take. One thing is for sure: he means business. Within a month of his election he had appointed a group of eight senior cardinals to advise on addressing the church's creaking bureaucracy. He has reportedly confided to church leaders in Latin America that there is "a stream of corruption" in the Vatican. A common complaint from bishops, whether liberal or conservative, is that the Curia can be painstakingly difficult to deal with. Add to that the constant whiff of sulphur around financial transactions and persistent rumours of sexual misconduct from senior Vatican officials and reform is a must if credibility is to be restored.
Most observers expect some significant shifts in the autumn when Roman clerics return to work after the long summer holiday. Francis, perhaps keen to steal a march on reform, has declined to take a holiday.
The first non-European Pope since the 8th Century has sought to bring the church to the world. He has warned against the church becoming self-referencing and inward-looking. He has also insisted that faith in God is a spiritual experience and community-based relationship rather than merely an institutional attachment. Speaking this week to the people of Rome, he said Catholics had to reach out to people who "feel themselves to be on the outskirts of society".
Francis will get a chance to shine on the international arena next month when he makes his first trip as pope, travelling to Rio de Janeiro to preside at World Youth Day. Latin American Catholics will surely see the visit as a homecoming and anything other than an unparalleled success is unthinkable.
You can't please everyone as pope. Benedict didn't and Francis certainly won't either. At the moment, people are parsing his every statement to find an affirmation of their particular version of reform. By his simplicity, Francis has already started a subtle process of reform – there is likely to be movement in other things too. However, don't expect any dramatic change in church teaching: anyone who hasn't realised that Pope Francis is a Catholic will be sorely disappointed.
Michael Kelly is editor of 'The Irish Catholic' newspaper