Will the Pope Change the Vatican?

Pope Francis has disrupted the traditions of the Vatican, beginning with his rejection of pomp and luxuries. His emphasis on serving the poor over enforcing doctrine inspires joy in some Roman Catholics and anxiety in others.

By Robert Draper
Adapted from “Will the Pope Change the Vatican? Or will the Vatican Change the Pope?,” by Robert Draper, in National Geographic, August 2015

When about 7,000 awed strangers first encounter him on the public stage, he is not yet the pope. But something astounding is clearly already present in him. In a stadium in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians have gathered for an event. From the stage, a pastor calls for the city’s archbishop to come up and say a few words. The audience reacts with surprise, because the man striding to the front had been sitting in the back all this time, like no one of any importance. Though a cardinal, he is not wearing the traditional cross around his neck, just the black shirt and jacket of a simple priest. He is thin and elderly, with a somber face. At this moment in 2006, it is hard to imagine that such a modest man would one day be known internationally as a figure of radiance and charisma.

He speaks quietly, with no notes. He does not refer to the evangelical movement with contempt, as many Latin American Catholic priests do. Instead, the most powerful Argentine in the Catholic Church, which asserts that it is the only true Christian church, says that no such distinctions matter to God. “How nice,” he says, “that brothers are united, that brothers pray together. How nice to see that nobody negotiates their history on the path to faith—that we are diverse but that we want to be, and are already beginning to be, a reconciled diversity.”

Hands outstretched, he prays: “Father, we are divided. Unite us!”

Those who know the archbishop are astonished at such a show of emotion for a usually reserved man. But what will also be remembered about that day occurs immediately after he stops talking. He drops slowly to his knees—a plea for the attendees to pray for him. After a startled pause, they do so, led by an evangelical minister. The image will make the front pages in Argentina. The ultraconservative Catholic journal Cabildo prints it with an accompanying headline that features a jarring noun: apóstata. The cardinal as a traitor to his faith.

This is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.

“I really need to start making changes right now,” Francis told several friends just two months after becoming pope. To many, the new pope had changed seemingly everything, seemingly overnight. He was the first Latin American pope, and the first in a millennium not born in Europe. He was also the first to take the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor. Shortly after his election in 2013, he appeared on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica all in white, without the traditional scarlet cape over his shoulders or gold-embroidered red stole around his neck. He greeted the crowd below with warm informality: “Brothers and sisters, good evening.” And he closed with a request, what many Argentines already knew to be his signature line: “Pray for me.”

The next morning, he did not move into the traditional papal quarters. Instead, he chose a modest apartment in the Vatican’s guesthouse. In his first meeting with the press he revealed his primary goal: “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.” And instead of celebrating the traditional Holy Thursday Mass at a basilica, washing the feet of priests, he preached at a youth prison. There he washed the feet of inmates, some of whom were Muslims. All this took place during his first month as pope.

Still, the new pope’s Argentine friends understood what he meant by “changes.” Although these gestures carried considerable weight, the man they knew was not content with mere symbols. He was a practical, streetwise porteño, as the residents of the port city of Buenos Aires call themselves. He wanted the Catholic Church to be, as he often put it, a hospital on a battlefield, taking in all who were wounded, regardless of which side they fought on. To make this happen he could be, according to an Argentine friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, “a very stubborn person.”

Bergoglio entered the seminary in 1956, when he was 20 years old. Soon after, he chose the Society of Jesus as his path to the priesthood. As a student at Colegio Máximo de San José, he possessed both “heightened spiritual discernment and political skills,” according to one of his professors, Father Juan Carlos Scannone.  Bergoglio taught unruly boys, washed the feet of prisoners, studied overseas. As rector of Colegio Máximo he became a fixture in the slums throughout Buenos Aires. Despite conflicts with his superiors, he was made bishop in 1992, archbishop in 1998, and cardinal in 2001.

Shy by nature, Bergoglio is a self-described callejero, or street wanderer, preferring the company of the poor over the affluent. But for all his simplicity, he was also always a city boy, an acute social observer, and a natural leader. As Father Carlos Accaputo, a long-time adviser says, “I think God has prepared him, throughout his entire pastoral ministry, for this moment.”

Moreover, his papacy was not a fluke. It arose from the sudden and unusual resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and from the growing feeling among many cardinals that the old-fashioned ways of the Vatican were rotting the Catholic Church from within.

The pope knew the challenges awaiting him. Financial disarray in the Vatican bank was a major problem. Bureaucratic greed tempted many church officials. Francis intended to move swiftly on these and other matters. As Pentecostal pastor and scholar Norberto Saracco puts it, “he was going to make a lot of enemies. He’s not naive, OK?”

Saracco remembers expressing concern about the pope’s boldness. “Jorge, we know that you don’t wear a bulletproof vest,” he said. “There are many crazy people out there.”

Francis replied calmly, “The Lord has put me here. He’ll have to look out for me.” Though he had not asked to be pope, he said the moment he was elected, he felt a tremendous sense of peace.

What the Vatican feels is another story.

Federico Wals had spent several years as Bergoglio’s press aide in Buenos Aires. When he traveled to Rome in 2014 to see the pope, he first visited Father Federico Lombardi, the longtime Vatican communications official. “So, Father,” the Argentine asked, “how do you feel about my former boss?” Managing a smile, Lombardi replied, “Confused.”

Lombardi had been the spokesman for Pope Benedict. According to Lombardi, after meeting with a world leader the former pope would emerge and summarize the conversation. “It was incredible. Benedict was so clear. He would say, ‘We have spoken about these things, I agree with these points, I would argue against these other points, the objective of our next meeting will be this’—two minutes and I’m totally clear about what the contents were. With Francis—‘This is a wise man; he has had these interesting experiences.’”

Chuckling, Lombardi adds, “Diplomacy for Francis is not so much about strategy but instead, ‘I have met this person, we now have a personal relation, let us now do good for the people and for the church.’”

Like many institutions, the Vatican is suspicious of those who want change. Since the 14th century, the center of Catholicism has been Vatican City, a 110-acre, walled city-state within Rome. It has long been a magnet for tourists, thanks to the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. But it is also a self-contained territorial entity with its own administrators, police, grocery store, and newspaper. For centuries it has weathered conquests, plagues, and scandals. The walls have held.

Now comes Francis, a man who despises walls. He has tried to get closer to the people, an approach not welcomed by Vatican officials.

“I believe we haven’t yet seen the real changes,” says Ramiro de la Serna, a priest who has known the pope for years. “And I also believe we haven’t seen the real resistance yet either.”

To some, Pope Francis is a reformer, a radical, a revolutionary. He has impressed not only Catholics but also those of other faiths, and even nonbelievers. As Rabbi Skorka says, “He is changing religiosity throughout the world.”

The pope’s reforms are widely seen as good news for an institution that had long known only bad news. “Two years ago,” says Father Thomas J. Reese, a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, “if you asked anybody on the street, ‘What’s the Catholic Church for and against?’ you would’ve gotten, ‘It’s against gay marriage, against birth control’—all this stuff. Now if you ask people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the pope—he’s the guy who loves the poor and doesn’t live in a palace.’ That’s an extraordinary achievement for such an old institution.”

In 2010, Yayo Grassi, a former student of the archbishop of Buenos Aires, sent an email to his old teacher. Grassi, who is gay, had read that his beloved mentor had condemned legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage. “You have been my guide, continuously moving my horizons—you have shaped the most progressive aspects of my worldview,” Grassi wrote. “And to hear this from you is so disappointing.”

The archbishop wrote that he had taken Grassi’s words to heart, but the Catholic Church’s position on the subject was clear. Still, it pained Bergoglio to know that he had upset his student. Above all, said the future pope in his reply, in his pastoral work, there was no place for homophobia.

The exchange suggests what one should, and should not, expect from his papacy. Francis has not changed his stance against gay marriage. As he wrote, he views it as a threat to “the identity and survival of the family: father, mother, and children.”

But what renewed Grassi’s reverence for his former teacher was his accessible simplicity. Bergoglio believes in vigorous engagement with the community, which involves both seeking out and listening. That is more difficult than merely issuing edicts, for it requires the courage of humility.

It is what prompted Bergoglio to drop to his knees and ask for the prayers of thousands of evangelical Christians that fateful day at the stadium in Buenos Aires. It is what compelled him, as pope, to refuse to have his hand kissed by an Albanian priest who had been imprisoned and tortured. Instead, the pope attempted to kiss the man’s hand, and then wept openly in his arms. And it is what shocked millions when he said, in response to a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”

It appears the pope has made it his mission to ignite a revolution in the Catholic Church, without overturning long-held teachings. “He won’t change doctrine,” insists de la Serna, his Argentine friend. “What he will do is return the church to its true doctrine—the one it has forgotten, the one that puts man back in the center. For too long, the church put sin in the center. By putting the suffering of man, and his relationship with God, back in the center, these harsh attitudes toward homosexuality, divorce, and other things will start to change.”

But the man who said that he needed “to start making changes right now” does not have time on his side. He has said that his papacy might last only “four or five years” because he would like to live out his final days back home. The words were surely a comfort to hard-liners inside the Vatican who want to slow down Francis’s reforms. Many hope his successor will return to the old ways.

Still, this revolution, whether or not it succeeds, is unlike any other, if only for the joy with which it is being waged. When the new archbishop of Buenos Aires visited his predecessor, he mentioned how remarkable it was to see his old friend smiling so much. The pope considered those words carefully, as he always does.

Then Francis, no doubt smiling, said, “It’s very entertaining to be pope.”