By Sandro Contenta
No one expected the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to be elected pontiff last March. But in the months since, Pope Francis has become one of the most talked-about people in the world. As Toronto Star journalist and longtime Vatican watcher Sandro Contenta writes in his new ebook, The Francis Effect: How the Pope is Changing the Catholic Church, this down-to-earth pontiff has generated an exciting sense of renewal. Many lapsed Catholics are finding their way back to Sunday mass. Contenta cautions that Francis won’t change church doctrines. But his call for merciful priests who take to the streets and work for the poor could result in a radically different Church. Read his ebook to find out what Francis is changing, and what will likely stay the same.
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The Francis Effect
“I cannot live without people”
The stirrings of something approaching Francismania began the moment the new Pope appeared. Catholics who still cared about the Church quickly turned the page, and the media followed, if only for the sake of variety.
Every gesture and utterance fuelled a larger story about Francis’s personality and vision — the down-to-earth Pope who wants an inclusive Church in solidarity with the poor. One observer called him “a humble pastor who sounds like Jesus.”
Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins says Francis is saying what the Church and previous popes have always said. But style, tone and emphasis make all the difference.
A Church that for years seemed at war with modernity, using doctrine to scold and threaten damnation, suddenly seems kinder and more welcoming. “Thou shall not” has been replaced by a Church that “seeks not to judge but to love.” And Catholics are loving it.
“Built into the Catholic imagination is a tremendous instinctive loyalty to the papacy in general,” says Richard Gaillardetz, a theology professor at Boston College and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. “The papacy is a significant identity marker in the Catholic Church. We want to be proud of the pope.
“What you’re seeing is a lot of pent-up frustration among a lot of Catholics who instinctively want to stand by the pope, want to promote the pope, but felt somewhat ambivalent about doing so with his two predecessors. Now they have a pope that they believe represents a Biblically robust representation of Christianity, and they’re excited about that.”
Non-Catholics are paying attention, too. A November survey found “Pope Francis” was the most talked-about proper name on the English language Internet in 2013. In December, Time magazine named him “person of the year.” The world seems suddenly to be listening for all the right reasons, and the popular attraction has high-profile atheists concerned.
“He’s obviously a nice man, therefore a dangerous man,” leading evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins told fellow atheist Bill Maher in late October. “We don’t want nice men in the Vatican.”
After decades of precipitous decline, polls find church attendance spiking in Italy, Spain and Britain. A survey of 22 cathedrals in England and Wales by the Sunday Times indicates a 21-per-cent increase in attendance at mass.
In Toronto, Rob Peeren is among those returning to the Church. He grew up in a devoted Catholic family. Every Sunday he served as an altar boy, comforted by the hymns and rituals of mass.
“It seemed to be all about helping and charity and goodwill,” Peeren says of his religious experience in a London, Ont., parish.
By the time he moved to Toronto as an adult, the message from the Church had changed.
“The Church was getting into the weeds a lot,” says Peeren, a technical specialist in software sales. “It seemed to be concerned with small matters rather than the big picture.
“Why is the Church so involved in contraception and same-sex marriage?” he asked himself at the time. “How is this going to solve big-picture issues like poverty and injustice?”
“It turned me off,” adds Peeren, who lives in the Beach with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. “I wasn’t hearing about the things that were important to me.”
He recalls one Sunday mass in which the priest asked worshippers to pray that same-sex marriage didn’t become law in Canada. He had heard enough. He stopped going to mass regularly. For 15 years he became what he calls a “C & E Catholic” — one who attends mass only on Christmas and Easter.
Then Francis burst onto the scene, insisting on a “church for the poor” and on priests who work for social justice. Peeren, who is in his late 40s, is now back to being a regular in the pews.
“The focus is back on the important issues,” he says. “It makes us feel more connected with the Church.
“Ultra-conservative groups make a lot of noise but they’re a small minority,” he adds. “The vast majority of Catholics just want to help people and have a sense of community. Francis is making that possible.”
Rev. Brian Clough, who has ministered at Toronto’s St. Anselm’s parish for the past 11 years, says his parishioners “have been invigorated by him. They feel he’s injected — I don’t want to say a new life, but I think he’s tried to impart a different vision.”
One invigorated Catholic is Scarborough’s Joan Schmidt. She had been “totally appalled” by the Church’s lack of accountability on the sex abuse scandal. Its exclusion of women, gays and anyone else who didn’t fit rigidly orthodox interpretations of Scripture also made weekly church-going a chore. Her quest to find a parish with a more inclusive vision saw her settling on St. Peter’s church and the Paulist Ministry Centre at Bathurst and Bloor Sts. “I was very disheartened,” says Schmidt, 66, who used to teach Grade 1 at a Catholic school.
Then Francis emerged, and everything changed.
“I feel I can actually hold my head up and I don’t have to hide my membership card in certain circles,” Schmidt says, referring to her lifelong adherence to the Catholic Church. “I feel I can really talk with a greater enthusiasm about the things that he says.
“I love what he’s doing. I Google him and read everything I can just to keep me going. I feel I really trust his heart.”
Schmidt isn’t naïve. She describes the Church as deeply rooted in a stunted, patriarchal vision that won’t easily be changed. “I don’t think Francis can reverse these things right now,” she says, “but if he lives long enough he will have us on the way.
“I’ll go a long way for Francis.”
Yves Côté, who heads the church council at Saint-Pierre-Apôtre parish in downtown Montreal’s gay village, has watched a largely grey-haired congregation suddenly get an infusion of youth. “We see young people coming back to church,” Côté says. “We talk of the Francis effect — he’s inspiring, and we feel like following him. A pastor has to bring people together, and he’s a pastor in the real sense of the word.”
Some of the Church’s most prominent critics are also feeling hopeful.
In late September, a Redemptorist order priest in Ireland wrote Pope Francis, hoping the pontiff would lift an order that bans him from publicly preaching, celebrating mass or giving the Sacraments. Rev. Tony Flannery was “taken out of ministry” in 2012 by Pope Benedict and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office headed by German Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller.
Flannery had written articles in a Redemptorist magazine calling on the Church to accept birth control and lift the ban on women priests. He also rejected the Church’s description of homosexuality as a “disorder.”
The head of his religious order called him to Rome, handed him documents without letterhead and said they came from Mueller’s office. The papers presented him with an ultimatum: publicly accept “the whole teaching of the Church,” including that on all moral issues, or be gone. He was shocked and refused to recant.
“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made the accusation, passed the judgment and imposed the penalty — all before I even became aware that it was happening,” Flannery told me. “It was 16th-century justice. It’s a very good illustration of the way the Church generally was being run.”
In retrospect, Flannery believes the real reason he was targeted is because he co-founded the Association of Catholic Priests, which represents 1,000 of Ireland’s 4,500 priests. It’s one of several clerical groups in Europe demanding a more grassroots Church, one willing to discuss the ordination of women, the celibacy of priests and a range of issues around sexuality and the family.
“I have no doubt it was their way of trying to put a stop to this movement,” Flannery says, referring to his ouster.
Flannery will be surprised if his letter of appeal reaches the pontiff. He expects some bureaucrat will intercept it. Still, he can’t help but be “delighted with the whole mood Francis has created.” Flannery sometimes gets the impression the Pope’s vision “could have been taken from the aims and objectives of the Association of Catholic Priests.
“Most of us in the association are of the older generation. We grew up in the excitement of the Second Vatican Council. And then we lived through that long dark period,” he says, referring to the reign of John Paul II, when priests working for social justice in Latin America were silenced and power was centralized in Rome.
“It got to the point, I’m in my mid-60s, where I thought I wouldn’t see any renewal of the Church. And then, totally out of the blue, this man arrives. And when you look at the (conservative) crowd going into the conclave, you’d have thought, ‘There isn’t even a hope of anything remotely liberal and open-minded coming out of that.’ And then he comes.”
The rave reviews have so far given Francis a Teflon sheen. He flatly rejects the ordination of women and has said almost nothing, until December, about the sex abuse of children by priests. Yet he faces little criticism.
In a mass for cardinals the day after his election, he said he concurred with the words of a 19th-century French convert: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the Devil.” Jews would of course beg to differ. In another sermon, he insisted, “It is not possible to find Jesus outside of the Church” — a slight, this time, to other Christian churches.
The retired Pope Benedict, who came to the papacy with the reputation of being “God’s Rottweiler,” would likely have been hammered on all fronts if he had uttered those phrases or stayed silent on sex abuse. But everyone seems willing to cut Francis some slack
Bergoglio was born the son of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires. At the age of 12 he fell in love with a girl from his neighbourhood and asked her to marry him. “He said that if I didn’t say yes, he would have to become a priest,” Amalia Damonte told reporters after Bergoglio became Pope. “Luckily for him, I said no.”
He studied philosophy and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1979. He became head of Argentina’s Jesuits in 1973, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1991 and a cardinal in 2001.
Along the way, he earned a reputation as a conservative on Church doctrine and a anonize, on the same day in April 2014, John XXIII — who launched the great modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s — and John Paul II, whom many accuse of having crushed the spirit of those reforms.
Bergoglio made closeness to people a vocation.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would go out at night to comfort and feed the homeless. He lived in a modest apartment, cooked his own supper and used public transit to get around. Yet cardinals couldn’t help but be amazed when, hours after he was elected pope, Francis joined them on the shuttle bus back to their hotel. The next morning, he showed further disdain for the trappings of office by paying his own hotel bill and shunning the papal limo for a more modest car.
As Pope, after his first mass for the public, he stood by the front entrance of a Vatican church, chatting with each of the worshippers who attended. Then he stepped beyond the Vatican City gates for an unscheduled walkabout in Rome, much to the anxiety of his Swiss guards.
The Vatican’s almoner, who makes donations on behalf of the Pope, has raised speculation that Francis secretly continues his nightly encounters with the homeless. In November, the Pope blessed a statue of a homeless Jesus lying on a park bench, made by Ontario sculptor Timothy Schmalz. Vatican officials had invited Schmalz to bring the wooden model of his statute to St. Peter’s Square, and are working with the artist to find a permanent home for a bronze version nearby.
On Dec. 17, when Francis turned 77, he celebrated mass with four homeless men and his closest staff.
For his tours of St. Peter’s Square to greet the faithful, he replaced the bullet-proof “popemobile,” used since John Paul II was almost killed by an assassin in 1981, with an open-backed jeep. He doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and make calls. Shortly after his election, he called his newspaper stand in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription. He called his shoemaker to insist he not produce the traditional red papal loafers, but to continue his regular order of black orthopedic shoes instead.
He has called to console an unemployed youth, a man whose brother was murdered and an unmarried woman who feared the Church would refuse to baptize her “illegitimate” baby, whose father was a married man. Francis assured her he would perform the baptism personally if she encountered any trouble.
He calls so often that Italy’s respected Corriere della Sera newspaper published an article offering tips for recipients. “Just be natural,” the article advised. “If he wanted to get bored, he would have called a government minister.”
He is the kind of pope who, while speaking to 150,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, lets a bored little boy who wanders onstage hug his leg. Then he lets him sit in his papal chair. And he can pose for a selfie with teenagers and make it seem natural.
“He has a very attractive, homey style, which is obviously not put on — what you see is what you get,” says Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto.
Collins adds that cardinals who elected Bergoglio were clear on the talents he would bring to the job.
“Every time you have a new pope you think, ‘What can this age use?’ ” Collins says. “Pretty well everyone was saying, ‘I think we need someone who can communicate directly with the people of the world — not just the Church — and someone who has experience as a bishop in the trenches.’ ”
Like John Paul II, Francis has “grasped the power of the symbolic gesture in the media age,” Gaillardetz says.
He also cultivates an image as a Vatican outsider, making clear he won’t be corralled by the Curia’s powerful prelates or seduced by sycophants. “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers,” Francis told La Repubblica. “The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
He dismissed the spacious papal apartment as better suited to Curia gatekeepers who like their pontiffs isolated. He settled instead into Room 201 at the Vatican’s Santa Marta guest house.
“People can come only in dribs and drabs,” he complained of the papal apartment, “and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.” One observer called it Francis’s declaration of independence from the Curia.
Fretful Vatican technocrats used to keeping popes under wraps now hear of Francis accepting spur-of-the-moment lunch invitations from prelates with unknown agendas. Further distancing himself from the Curia, he appointed eight trusted cardinals to function as his cabinet, advising him on everything from reforming the bureaucracy to reconsidering Church practices on issues that impact the family, such as marriage, divorce and gay relationships.
“This is a man who clearly is not going to let the office run him,” says Clough, who was ordained in 1968.
Collins describes Francis as “constantly triangulating, constantly getting information from many different people.” But he is also decisive. Both attributes were on display in October, when bishops around the world received a Vatican questionnaire on a range of hot topics, including birth control and gay marriage. The responses will help the Vatican issue new guidelines by 2015 on how priests should treat people no longer part of traditional, church-going family units.
The document notes that among Catholics, faith in the sacraments of marriage and penance shows “signs of weakness or total abandonment.” The fact that “many children or young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments” is an urgent challenge for a Church with an evangelical mission, it adds.
It asks bishops to find answers to 39 questions, including how many unmarried Catholic couples live together in their dioceses, whether Catholics accept the Church’s ban on birth control and how the Church should treat divorced and remarried Catholics.
In the case of same-sex couples, “What pastoral attention can be given to people who have chosen to live in these types of unions?” And what duty does the Church have towards the adopted children of gay couples?
The Vatican put the questionnaire on its website and asked bishops to distribute it “as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes.” The Archdiocese of Toronto, following the lead of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, posted the survey on its website and asked Catholics to respond by mid-December.
The new guidelines will be discussed at a synod in October 2014 and another in 2015. Stiff resistance from conservatives is likely. But Francis didn’t hesitate to provoke and prod them with the questionnaire.
“That’s a striking characteristic of Bergoglio’s governing style,” says Alberto Melloni, director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy. “He’s a man who does things without explaining why. He didn’t write one sentence explaining why he was sending the questionnaire — he just did it.
“In the questionnaire, he doesn’t ask whether the existence of gay couples is something that should preoccupy the Church, or if legislation should be more permissive or not. He notes that gay couples exist, they have children and these children have the right to pastoral care just like the children of any other family. This is Bergoglio in action.”
Until he issued an 84-page papal “exhortation” in late November, Francis had put few of his thoughts on paper. In an encyclical on faith released in July, he pointedly noted it was largely the work of his predecessor, Benedict. Yet few popes have created as much buzz about their vision of the Catholic Church. Francis has done it with what used to be the rarest form of papal communication — media interviews and off-the-cuff remarks.
Every morning, the Pope delivers an unscripted sermon in a Vatican chapel. Vatican officials provide brief summaries of his comments but refuse to give full transcripts, insisting a written text would require editing and take away from the informal atmosphere Francis prefers.
An unscripted Francis keeps Vatican officials on their toes. In one sermon, he criticized officials at the Vatican bank, which has long been suspected of money laundering. The remark was included in the summary provided by Vatican Radio but left out a few hours later by L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican paper.
He approaches lengthy interviews and media scrums with a bluntness that has made international headlines. His comments have usually left Church reformers rejoicing and conservatives worried the musings may lead to doctrinal change. Everyone else hears a Church eager to engage with the world.
“What if what Francis is doing is nudging us to a different notion of the papacy?” Gaillardetz says, referring to the Pope’s interviews, unscripted sermons and accessible manner. “Maybe he’s saying the new mode of teaching is not the normative pronouncement of certitudes but the engagement in dialogue, in conversation.”
That would suggest a pope interested not in encouraging docility but in provoking critical thought. In the context of the Catholic Church, that is revolutionary indeed.