Pope With the Humble Touch Is Firm in Reshaping the Vatican
The New York Times, By JASON HOROWITZ and JIM YARDLEY
VATICAN CITY — Less than a year into his papacy, Pope Francis has raised expectations among the world’s one billion Roman Catholics that change is coming. He has already transformed the tone of the papacy, confessing himself a sinner, declaring “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.
Less apparent, if equally significant for the future of the church, is how Francis has taken on a Vatican bureaucracy so plagued by intrigue and inertia that it contributed, numerous church officials now believe, to the historic resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, last February.
Francis’ reign may not ultimately affect centuries-old church doctrine, but it is already reshaping the way the church is run and who is running it. Francis is steadily replacing traditionalists with moderates as the church prepares for a debate about the role of far-flung bishops in Vatican decision-making and a broad discussion on the family that could touch on delicate issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
In St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, Francis, dressed in golden robes, hinted at the major changes he had already set in motion. “What happened this year?” he asked. “What is happening, and what will happen?”
To some of the scarlet-clad cardinals seated in rows of gilded armchairs at the New Year’s service, the answer was becoming clear. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, one of the highest-ranking Americans in the Vatican, found his influence diluted. Another conservative, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, was demoted. Among the bishops, Archbishop Guido Pozzo was sidelined.
To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.
On Sunday, Francis made his first mark on the exclusive College of Cardinals that will elect his successor by naming prelates who in many cases hail from developing countries and the Southern Hemisphere. He pointedly instructed the new cardinals not to consider the job a promotion or to waste money with celebratory parties.
“It was an important year,” said Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-ranking official and one of only four Vatican officials Francis will make a cardinal in February. Asked in a New Year’s Eve interview about the personnel changes, he replied that it was only natural that the Argentine pope should prefer to have “certain people who are able to advance his policy.”
Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.
“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”
Francis remains tricky to define, a doctrinal conservative whose humble style and symbolic gestures have thrilled many liberals. On Christmas, the destitute poured into an ancient church in Rome for a holiday lunch sponsored by a Catholic lay organization. The group’s founder, Andrea Riccardi, once a liaison to the church when he served as an Italian government minister, expressed hopes for change, but also wariness about Vatican officials ignoring the pope’s agenda.
“You hear people talk about it in the corridors of the church,” Mr. Riccardi said. “The real resistance is to continue business as usual.”
Four days earlier, Francis met with the Curia in the Sala Clementina, the 16th-century reception hall in the Apostolic Palace, to deliver one of the most important papal speeches of the year. Benedict used his last such Christmas address to denounce same-sex marriage. Francis used his first to castigate his own colleagues in the Curia.
He warned the men in red and purple skullcaps and black cassocks arrayed around him that the Curia risked drifting “downwards towards mediocrity” and becoming “a ponderous, bureaucratic customhouse.” He also called on the prelates to be “conscientious objectors” to gossip.
Not New to the Battle
It was a pointed rebuke of the poisonous atmosphere that had troubled Benedict’s papacy, and for which the former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was often blamed. And it was a reminder that Francis, if a new pope, was not new to the machinations of the Curia, having tangled while in Argentina with a powerful conservative faction.
“He was not an ingénue coming out into the world,” said Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist who has known Francis for more than two decades and whose recent book, “Francis: Life and Revolution,” documented his past clashes with Rome. “He had had almost a war with this section of the Roman Curia.”
Now Francis talks disparagingly of “airport bishops” who are more interested in their careers than flocks, and warns that priests can become “little monsters” if they are not trained properly as seminarians.
He is dismantling the power circle of Cardinal Bertone, who led a ring of conservatives centered on the city of Genoa. In September, Francis demoted Cardinal Piacenza, a Bertone ally, from his post running the powerful Congregation for the Clergy.
To some it was an indication that the new pope could act with a measure of ruthlessness. Several Vatican officials said that Cardinal Piacenza’s greatest transgression had been undermining his predecessor, a Brazilian prelate close to Francis who appeared with him on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election.
Francis also removed a top official of the Vatican City government, although arranging a soft landing pad. Others were less fortunate.
As a priest, Guido Pozzo led a Vatican commission tasked with bridging the schism between the church and traditionalists critical of the Second Vatican Council. In November 2012, Cardinal Bertone elevated him to the rank of archbishop and Benedict appointed him to run the church’s charity office. Francis, who is much less interested than Benedict was in appealing to the schismatic conservatives, has since sent Archbishop Pozzo back to his former post.
Another is Cardinal Burke. In 2008, Benedict installed his fellow traditionalist as president of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, and the next year appointed him to the Congregation for Bishops. The post gave Cardinal Burke tremendous sway in selecting new bishops in the United States.
In December, Francis replaced him with a more moderate cardinal. “He’s looking for places to put his people,” said one official critical of the pope.
Another Vatican conservative took offense at Francis’ disdain for elaborate dress. And speculation that Francis might convert the papal vacation home of Castel Gandolfo into a museum or a rehabilitation center has also raised alarms. “If he does that,” said an ally of the old guard, “the cardinals will rebel.”
For now, the resistance is not gaining traction. “The Holy Spirit succeeds also in melting the ice and overcoming any resistance,” Secretary of State Parolin said. “So there will be resistance. But I wouldn’t give too much importance to these things.”
Francis also has empowered a group of eight cardinals representing five continents to spearhead reform of the Curia. He has hired secular consultants and set up a special commission to oversee the Vatican Bank. And while he has spoken infrequently on clerical sexual abuse, he has formed another commission “for the protection of minors.”
He may also delegate some of the powers traditionally held by the office of secretary of state by creating a new papal enforcer, who would wrest power away from Curia bureaucrats.
“This is a very real possibility,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who replaced Cardinal Burke on the Congregation for Bishops.
Shunning Italian Politics
For years, Italian politicians have courted the Vatican, and vice versa, as both Pope John Paul II and Benedict encouraged Italy’s prelates to speak out on issues that concerned the church. Francis’ distaste for directly involving the church in politics has now threatened that old link between Italian prelates and Italy’s conservative politicians.
“Today, the Italian bishops are keeping silent,” said Pier Ferdinando Casini, a prominent politician who once met with cardinals and even popes but has yet to meet Francis.
The Vatican remains a disproportionately Italian institution, with Italy boasting the biggest bloc of cardinals even as it now accounts for only 4 percent of the world’s Catholics. Vatican employees are overwhelmingly Italian, with lifetime job security, sometimes extending for generations.
Perks abound. On a recent afternoon inside the Vatican’s department store, bargain hunters shopped for tax-free wine, cigarettes, Ferragamo clutches and North Face jackets beneath clocks reading the time in New York, Vatican City and Tokyo.
The Italian problem, as many non-Italian cardinals called it, loomed over the conclave that elected Francis in March. An undue Italian influence was blamed for suspicious accounts and mismanagement of the Vatican Bank and the gossip mongering that fueled an embarrassing scandal centered on leaks of Benedict’s private letters.
“What is necessary is that at this stage that the culture becomes less Italian,” one senior Vatican official said, “particularly as people work towards greater transparency and meritocracy.”
Off the Career Track
Francis, whose father was an Italian immigrant, and whose second language is Italian, does have key Italian allies, including Secretary of State Parolin and two other Curia department prefects he named as cardinals on Sunday. But analysts say his passing over of traditional Italian powerhouses, such as Venice, where the archbishop is close to Cardinal Bertone, shows that he is trying to break the established career track in the Italian church.
Francis is also tinkering with the once mighty conference of Italian bishops, which he sits atop in his role as bishop of Rome. Popes have traditionally appointed the president of the Italian conference, but Francis may introduce elections, as happens in other bishops’ conferences.
Under Benedict, the conference’s president, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, jousted for influence in Italian politics with Cardinal Bertone, whom Francis has largely sidelined. But the pope also recently removed Cardinal Bagnasco from the powerful Congregation for Bishops.
In a recent Saturday homily, Francis warned an audience that included Cardinal Bagnasco of the danger of becoming a “smarmy” priest. Succumbing to worldly temptations, he added, made for “priest-wheeler-dealers, priest-tycoons.”
The New Year’s Eve Mass at St. Peter’s ended with a procession of priests escorting Francis out of the basilica, followed by the thousands of the faithful. In the emptied church, the cardinals and bishops rose from their seats, shook hands with dignitaries and milled about around St. Peter’s tomb.
Cardinal Piacenza collected his umbrella from a prayer bench. Archbishop Pozzo made his way to the door. Asked about the changes underway in the Curia, he replied, “It’s been a surprising year!”
Not far away, Cardinal Burke blessed a few stragglers and declined to comment without permission from his “superiors.”
Weeks earlier, Cardinal Burke seemed poised to be the most prominent voice of resistance to Francis’ reign, telling a Catholic television network that he was not “exactly sure why” the pope “thinks we’re talking too much about abortion” and other culture war issues. When it came to changes in the Curia, he bemoaned “a kind of unpredictability about life in Rome in these days.”
At roughly the same time, Francis gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. The pope spoke again about “tenderness” and opening up the church. But he also added: “Prudence is a virtue of government. So is boldness.”
It was a telling point. On Dec. 15 Cardinal Burke returned to his boyhood parish in Stratford, Wis., to celebrate a special Mass. Dressed in the tall miter cap and traditional pink for the Christmas season, he spoke about his dairy farm roots but disappointed some of his parishioners by making no mention of Francis or the events happening in the Vatican.
“I was hoping he would,” said Marge Pospyhalla, who attended the Mass. “But, no, we did not get that.”
His silence said enough. The day after the Mass, Francis took Cardinal Burke off the Congregation for Bishops.