After a conclave that demanded reform, a year of 'fresh air'

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he leads his first Angelus in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 17, 2013. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he leads his first Angelus in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 17, 2013. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

by Gerard O'Connell

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Benedict XVI's troubled pontificate ended with his revolutionary resignation on Feb. 28, 2013. Four days later, 150 cardinals gathered in the Vatican for the pre-conclave assemblies to discuss the dramatic state of the church and the daunting challenges facing the new pope.

In the following week, they spoke frankly, expressing profound concern, dismay, even anger at the quagmire in which the Roman Curia was bogged down due to seemingly endless scandals.

They demanded reform, radical reform of the Roman Curia. They wanted someone "to pick up a brush and spade and clean out the muck," one told me. They were looking for a man with the ability to govern the Roman Curia and a church that seemed adrift on the high seas. Above all, an Asian cardinal confided, they were seeking "a man of deep spirituality" whom the followers of other religions would recognize as "a man of God."

Confounding the pundits and inspired by the Holy Spirit, the cardinals in conclave chose the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the runner-up in the 2005 conclave and the outstanding spiritual leader of the Latin American church. He was elected on a platform for reform, and he knew it.

One year later, Bergoglio's reform is turning out to be much deeper and wider than most, if not all, of his electors had anticipated. England's Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor put it this way: "We all wanted change and reform, but I don't think any of us expected so much fresh air!"

Like Pope John XXIII, who opened the windows of the Vatican to the fresh air of the Second Vatican Council, so too Francis has reopened those same windows to the winds of the Holy Spirit, with results that continue to surprise and inspire.

Bergoglio signaled that reform was in the air immediately after he was elected pope on March 13, by choosing the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. The saint heard Jesus telling him from the cross to "Go repair my church." The new pope sees his mission in a similar light. He spelled out what his reform entails on Nov. 24, in the inspiring apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). This is the road map for his pontificate.

His reform is first and foremost a spiritual one. He aims at a conversion of hearts and minds, a change of attitudes, on the part of all who work in the Vatican and in positions of responsibility in the church. At morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hostel where he lives, Francis delivers challenging, Scripture-based homilies that are the soul of his spiritual-cultural revolution.

The Jesuit pope is not simply advocating reform by words, he is propelling it forward by the striking example of his own humble, prayerful lifestyle, his preferential option for the poor, his vision of an inclusive church "that is poor and for the poor," his promotion of "a culture of encounter" and "rejection of a culture of confrontation," and his effort to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.

After visiting him last June, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described Francis as "a man of extraordinary humanity on fire with the Spirit of Jesus." It is this humanity that touches people's hearts, as they watch him embracing people with all kinds of disabilities and infirmities.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes that "the conversion of the papacy" is an essential part of his reforming mission. On taking office, he initiated a new style of papal ministry. Rejecting symbols of pomp and circumstance, he presented himself as "bishop of Rome" -- a significant ecumenical act -- and opted to live at Casa Santa Marta and stay close to people.

In the pre-conclave assemblies, Belgium's Cardinal Godfried Danneels and others argued that the new pope could not carry out the reform alone; he would need a group of cardinals to support him. Four days after his election, on March 17, Francis told Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, of his decision to set up a "Council of Cardinals" (eight cardinals, from all continents and the Vatican) to assist him in governing the universal church and reforming the Roman Curia. Francis asked Rodríguez to be coordinator. He consulted these advisers in October, December and February, and plans to do so regularly.

Indeed, he is moving from a monarchical style of church governance to a more collegial mode. "Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church's life and her missionary outreach," he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, calling for a "pastoral conversion" of "the central structures of the universal church."

He has reminded Roman Curia offices that their role is to serve the pope and the bishops, not to act as controllers or managers. Decentralization and subsidiarity are integral elements of this reform, as is his proposal to give episcopal conferences a proper juridical status that "would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority." This proposal marks a significant shift from the stance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were not keen to grant such a status and authority to episcopal conferences.

Following the Second Vatican Council, Francis is promoting synodality, by giving a greater role to the Synod of Bishops. He knows the synod has not functioned well, and so appointed a new secretary general, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, and instructed him to radically revamp its working methods.

Concerned at the crisis of the family, Francis convened the extraordinary Synod of Bishops for October 2014. He approved worldwide consultation to gain an accurate picture of Catholic family life today. Significantly, he has arranged that the discussion on the family will be conducted over two synods -- 2014 and 2015, in a new process that Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, special secretary of the 2014 gathering, said mirrors Vatican II, "where important progress was made between the sessions."

A pope's legacy is often characterized by the bishops he appoints. Francis has clear ideas about the kind of bishops he wants. Last June, addressing the nuncios, he listed the criteria for candidates. In December, he changed the membership of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, which selects bishops for sees throughout the world. He replaced some well-known conservative cardinals like the Americans Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali, the Italians Mauro Piacenza and Angelo Bagnasco (who is president of the Italian bishops' conference), and Antonio Rouco Varela of Spain with moderates like Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Città della Pieve, Italy, and Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. Now, he wants his criteria to become operative in the congregation, so that it chooses bishops who are prayerful men, close to their people, living a simple lifestyle, concerned for the poor, humble men, not careerists, nor those with "the psychology of princes."

He has chosen such men for key posts in the Roman Curia, including Pietro Parolin (secretary of state), Beniamino Stella (prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy), and Fernando Vérgez (secretary-general of the Governatorate of Vatican City State). And in a move to curb careerism, he abolished the title "monsignor" for priests under 65.

On Jan. 12, he initiated another key reform when he named 19 new cardinals, 16 of whom are eligible to vote for the next pope. His aim is to redress the Italian, European and U.S. imbalance in cardinal electors (so evident in recent conclaves), and ensure that the electors truly reflect the church's universality. He also wants to recognize "the church in the peripheries," in countries stricken by poverty, conflict and natural disaster, and so gave red hats to prelates in Haiti, Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and the Philippines. Significantly, he abandoned the tradition of giving red hats to the heads of Italy's nine main dioceses. The impact of this reform could become evident in about five years.

Early on, Francis intervened in the scandal-hit Institute for the Works of Religion (misnamed "the Vatican bank"). Building on Benedict's effort, he moved with rapid determination to bring transparency to the Institute for the Works of Religion and all other Vatican financial sectors. He established three commissions for this purpose, and engaged leading international auditing and consultancy groups to assist in the reform, which he wants completed this year.

As he stated in Evangelii Gaudium, he wants to shift the Catholic church into a missionary mode. As a young Jesuit, he desired to go to Japan, and now as pope, like Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier, he is reaching out to the peoples of Asia. He plans to visit Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and other countries, and hopes to dialogue with China.

Furthermore, he has given new impetus to the Holy See's diplomatic service, and reserves quality time for nuncios. His peace initiative for Syria opened many doors, and catapulted the Holy See back onto the world stage. Francis is likely to build on that by speaking at the United Nations in 2015, when he visits the United States.

In his first year as pope, Francis has energized and inspired Catholics worldwide, and touched the hearts of many outside the church. He enjoys enormous popularity, and the limited resistance to him that surfaced has been trumped by the overwhelmingly positive response of people worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether that resistance increases as Francis carries out reforms in the Roman Curia and the church; confronts those engaged in human trafficking, the arms trade and corruption; and calls for the elimination of hunger and poverty and for a management of the world's economy that puts the human person, not profit, at the center.

Like many others, Germany's Cardinal Walter Kasper believes Francis "has awakened hopes for a new beginning for the church, just as happened after Vatican II." But he is concerned that people may be "overloading" the new pope with "exaggerated expectations" that cannot be fulfilled. Commenting on this in Argentina's best-selling biography Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Piqué, Kasper reminded everyone: "A new pope can renew the church, but he cannot invent a new church."

[Gerard O'Connell is an Irish-born journalist living in Rome. He has covered the Vatican for almost 30 years for various news outlets, including Vatican Insider. Twitter: @gerryorome.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 28-March 13, 2014 print issue under the headline: After a conclave that demanded reform, a year of 'fresh air'.

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