We Are Church Intl.

Francis— the exhaustion of a lonely pope


by Marco Politi | 7 December 2013

English Translation by Anne Goodrich Heck


A touch of dizziness, a meeting missed, a sharp comment on the choices made by the new pontiff. Last Wednesday, in just a few hours, an alarm bell went off for Pope Bergoglio. After the general audience in St. Peter's Square - the temperature was cold - Francis felt dizzy and this minor ailment forced him to leave at once and go rest, giving up a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Scola, who had come specially from Milan to talk about a future visit to the Expo. This is no small matter. Scola was his main opponent at the conclave, not for personal reasons of course, but as the proponent of a different platform. Scola is still one of the most influential among the Italian bishops, and a good relationship with him is crucial to guide the CEI (Italian Bishops Conference) on the kind of reform the pope has in mind.


In fact Francis is working too hard. At the age of 76 and with responsibility for an organization of over a billion one hundred million adherents, the Argentine pope did not take a moment of vacation this summer. Unlike John Paul II he does not take restorative small "flights" into nature, and unlike Benedict XVI he does not allow himself a regular, daily hour's walk in the Vatican gardens. He told the young people of St. Cyril's parish in Rome last Sunday that he takes only a half hour nap after lunch and then "goes back to work again until evening." Francis demands too much of himself.


There is a reason for this. Bergoglio feels that he does not have much time – probably ten years or so before he himself decides to hand over his position. And ten years in the history of the Church is quite a short time. In the midst of the flood of praise and applause that surrounds him, the Argentine pope is alone, very alone. If the task were limited to the program that many cardinals expected of him, there would be no problem. Reorganizing the IOR (Vatican Bank) and streamlining the Curia are technical issues not difficult to achieve. Consulting more often with the bishops - as was asked of the future Pope during the general meetings prior to the conclave - could be achieved with more frequent plenary meetings, with a precise agenda, of the College of Cardinals.


But Francis is doing much more than many of those who voted for him could imagine (as happened also with John XXIII). He wants to remodel the Curia from the ground up, reorganize the Synod of Bishops, shape a new approach to sexual issues, spur the clergy to abandon bureaucratic and self-referential attitudes, change the style of episcopal power, put women into governing positions, and give new impetus to the fight against child sexual abuse by setting up a new commission (announced yesterday) to protect victims and give instructions to bishops' conferences.


There is one question hovering over the Apostolic Palace: Who is supporting Francis? What forces can he count on? The answer is that there is no "party" or active "movement" among the pro - Francis clergy and bishops. A bulky apparatus like that of the church –  thousands of bishops, hundreds of thousands of priests and religious, a network of centers of power, both large and small – cannot be reformed without a robust group of loyal and engaged followers. In the curia there in still no Team Bergoglio. The new Secretary of State, Msgr. Parolin, is the right man (especially because of his strong priestly character) to work with Bergoglio, but the majority of the offices of the curia are provisional. Up to now, in the curial departments and in the world-wide episcopacy, there is no firm bloc of cardinals, bishops and priests ready to fight for his reforms, like the champions of the Gregorian reform of the Middle Ages or of the shift in direction made at the Council of Trent. The national bishops conferences are inert. Too many pay only passive attention to what Francis says and does. Many conservatives wait in silence for him to make a blunder. The bureaucracies of large organizations know how to bounce back.


In this atmosphere, the statements of Msgr. Gaenswein, Ratzinger's secretary, in the German weekly Die Zeit, are worrisome. The magazine reported, without quoting him directly, that Benedict's right-hand man  felt that Francesco's decision not to live in the papal apartments was an "affront." Moreover, while recognizing that the pope is only one man, Gaenswein sadly exclaims, word for word: "Every day we wonder what new thing will be different (from before)." A rejection of a new course rather than an encouragement. Francis is alone, even if the hearts  of the faithful beat for him.


Il Fatto Quotidiano, 6 dicembre 2013