The trinket-sellers of St Peter’s Square are big fans of Pope Francis — and not because of his theology. After two years in which business was killed off by a dysfunctional pontificate and an economic crisis, the man from Argentina has brought the crowds back again.
“Francesco has shown himself to be a very good person, who says things which not only are right, but he says them in a language people understand,” said Manuel, a stallholder who does a brisk trade in Francis fridge magnets. “When the pope comes out, the people stop, they listen to what he says, and then they want to buy something because they love him.”
Ever since he first appeared on the Loggia of the Blessings balcony in mid-March, the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has introduced himself to the world in a series of eye-catching moves that have made a break with the past and endeared him to many in the faithful and secular worlds alike. He has drastically downsized the papal living arrangements; ditched the finery in which his predecessors bedecked themselves and sent Vatican officials into regular spins with impromptu jokes and ad-libbed speeches.
The Catholic world has reveled in the sight of a pope picking up his own luggage and touring in a 20-year-old Fiat. Pilgrims cheer when he ends his Sunday blessings with the prosaic exhortation: “Have a good lunch.”
Today, the Catholic church’s first non-European leader will fly to his native Latin America for his inaugural papal trip overseas and, instead of touring Brazil’s volatile second city in a bullet-proof “pope-mobile,” he has chosen an open-top 4x4, which he can easily get out of to meet people. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to take part in the World Youth Day festival in Rio de Janeiro.
With all this focus on image, it might be tempting to dismiss much of the so-called “Francis effect” as all style and no substance.
Such is the wide-ranging impact of his image that, far from the Vatican, the fashion writer Suzy Menkes pondered in the International Herald Tribune last week whether his “humility and abstention” had influenced the newly ascetic “fashion message coming out of Italy.” The idea earned the pope a reference in Vogue, complete with a photograph in which his plain white cassock and iron cross stood out starkly beside a gaudy Swiss guard.
Many observers say a new style is no bad thing. Moreover, with Francis, the medium is the message.
“He is someone of gesture rather than eloquent speeches,” said Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic studies at the University of Roehampton and a prominent liberal theologian. “The papacy is very much about style. It is the public face that the Catholic church presents to the world, and so I think a fundamental change in style means something very deep.”
So far, the most arresting features of Francis’ papacy — from the abandonment of Benedict XVI’s ermine stoles and red shoes to his decision to live in a guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace — have seen him embodying a commitment to the poor.
As a man who has seen poverty up close since his childhood, the Argentine, now 76, has very clearly placed those at the bottom of the social hierarchy at the top of his agenda. It was not by chance that he made his first trip outside Rome last week to Lampedusa, the Italian island where thousands of African migrants arrive each year. On another occasion, he railed against the “cult of money.”
On doctrinal issues, the 265th successor to St Peter is no liberal. He is staunchly anti-abortion, anti-women’s ordination, pro-priestly celibacy and anti-gay marriage.
Despite this, however, what gives some liberals hope is that, in contrast to Benedict’s unrelenting devotion to doctrinal purity, Francis has in the past shown himself to be open to dialogue; a conservative, but a pragmatic one.
“I think there does seem to be hope that, whether or not he himself is conservative doctrinally, he’s (a): not as interested in academic theology as pope Benedict was, and (b): he does seem willing to allow for greater dialogue in the church around some of the more difficult doctrinal issues,” Beattie said.
“I’m hoping that he’ll be more open to dialogue with women on issues of sexuality and maybe not think that he really does have all the answers,” she said.
All of this, of course, is the external part of Francis’ job description. As tricky as it will no doubt be, it may have nothing on the internal element: reform of the curia, the Vatican’s disorganized and, lately, scandal-beset bureaucracy.
A month after he became pope, Francis announced a revolution in church governance, appointing eight cardinals from across the world to an advisory panel on Vatican reform. It was a bold step that made it clear — if anyone had any doubt — that change was afoot.
Francis had already made clear his intention to distance himself from the curia by refusing to move into the apostolic palace, said John Thavis, a long-time papal observer and author of The Vatican Diaries, a recent bestseller.
“The day he announced he was staying in the Domus Sanctae Marthae ... sent the strongest signal at a very early point that this was going to be a very different papacy. I’m sure the Roman curia officials immediately understood: ‘This pope is going to be much less controlled by us,’” Thavis said.
Can this pope possibly succeed where others have failed? The key will be to appoint the right people to help him, Thavis said.
Francis has yet to make the most important appointment — that of his secretary of state — but he is understood to be moving forward. On Friday he announced the establishment of a commission to reform the Holy See’s economic and administrative departments. The new body will look at ways of avoiding “the misuse of economic resources” and improve transparency.
“We’ve seen a string of popes who have wanted change at the Vatican, but either didn’t have the patience or didn’t have the energy,” Thavis said. “Now you have a pope who not only feels he has a mandate to change because that’s what the cardinals wanted, but who seems to realize that he is, after all, pope and can make those changes.”
Back on Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue that leads from St Peter’s Square to the banks of the Tiber, the stalls selling Francis rosaries, Francis badges and Francis postcards attract people keen for a keepsake.
Antonio Cardone, who has had his stall for 30 years and over three pontificates, admits that not all pilgrims buy, but he doesn’t seem upset.
“There’s not much work but there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “Francis is of the people. He’s likeable. Benedict was not well-liked. With this one, it’s different.”