A Pope Like None Before. Can He Do It?

The symbolic voyage to Lampedusa. His great popularity. The reform of the curia. The calculated silence on ethical issues. But also his first error over an IOR appointment. The challenge of Francis in changing the Church is meeting with obstacles and enemies. Including at the Vatican

by Sandro Magister

ROME, July 11, 2013 – At the marking of his fourth month as pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has produced his first encyclical and completed his first voyage. Two symbolically powerful acts, but almost opposite in character.

“Lumen Fidei” indeed bears the signature of Pope Francis, but was conceived and almost entirely written by Benedict XVI. By making it his own, Bergoglio has wanted to give witness to his full agreement with his predecessor in carrying out the distinctive mission of the successor of Peter: “to strengthen the faith.”

The voyage to Lampedusa, however, marks a clear departure. In order to speak a Christian word on the encounter and clash between civilizations, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger would willingly give an erudite “lectio magistralis” at the Islamic university of Al Azhar. The pastor Bergoglio, instead, has taken his inspiration from Francis. Just as the saint of Assisi began his mission by going to kiss the lepers, who were banned from the city at the time, so also the pope who has taken his name has wished to go first of all to a far-flung little island, the landing or wrecking place of thousands of migrants and refugees. At the Mass he wanted to have read the biblical pages of Cain who kills Abel, and of the massacre of the innocents. A voyage of penance.

It comes as no surprise that after the voyage to Lampedusa, the universal popularity of Francis should have reached its highest peaks. “God does the statistics,” he has said. But there is an evident concurrence between the words and actions of this pope and those which could have been suggested to him by a scientific planner of his success. Almost everything that he does and says is difficult to contest for Catholic and secular public opinion, starting with that “how much I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor” which has become the identity card of the current pontificate.


One key element of Francis’s popularity is his personal credibility. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a modest two-room apartment. He cooked for himself. He got around by bus and metro. He fled from worldly engagements as from the plague. He never wanted to make a career for himself, but on the contrary patiently stepped aside when his own Society of Jesus, of which he had been provincial superior in Argentina for several years, brusquely deposed and isolated him.

For this reason as well, every time he invokes poverty for the Church and rails against the ambitions of power and greed for wealth present in the ecclesiastical camp, no voice is raised to criticize him. Who could ever justify the oppression of the destitute, and come to the defense of unmerited careers? Who could ever charge Francis with failing to practice what he preaches? On the lips of the current pope, the paradigm of a poor Church is an infallible one. It garners a practically universal consensus, both among the friends and among the most ardent enemies of the Church, those who would like to see it so impoverished as to disappear altogether.

But then there is another key factor of Francis’s popularity. His invectives, for example, against the “invisible tyranny” of the international financial centers does not strike a specific and recognizable objective. And therefore none of the true or presumed “strong powers” feel effectively touched and provoked to react.

Even when his reprimands take aim at misdeeds within the Church, these almost always stick to generalities. Once when pope Bergoglio, in one of his conversational morning homilies, raised an explicit doubt over the future of the IOR, the Institute for Works of Religion, the controversial Vatican “bank,” the spokesmen bent over backward to defuse the situation. And when he denounced the fact that a “gay lobby” at the Vatican “is there, it’s true,” the damage control emerged all down the line. Even secular public opinion, more lavish today than ever in hurling accusations of homophobia, forgave him for this statement, with an indulgence that certainly would not have been granted to his predecessor.

Benedict XVI, in effect, was different. In spite of his meek appearance, he was often very explicit and direct in expressing his judgments and in getting his listeners on the ropes. The earthquake unleashed by his lecture in Regensburg remains the most spectacular effect of this. But there was another important discourse of his that illustrates the case even better.

It was during his third and last voyage in Germany, in September of 2011. In Freiburg, pope Joseph Ratzinger wanted to meet with a representative group of German Catholics “active in the Church and in society.” And to them, as also to the bishops of Germany who were present almost in their entirety, he serenely addressed words of deadly severity, extremely demanding. Entirely focused on the duty of a poor Church, “stripped of worldly wealth,” “detached from the world,” “freed from material and political burdens and privileges,” in order to be able “to dedicate itself better and in a truly Christian way to the whole world.”

So then, that discourse of his met with a chilly reception and was rapidly hushed, in the first place by those to whom the pope had addressed himself. Because precisely at them he had taken aim with precision, asking for a change: at that German Church which he knew very well: wealthy, satisfied, bureaucratized, politicized, but poor in the Gospel.


Pope Francis’s way of speaking is certainly one of his most original traits. It is simple, understandable, communicative. It has the appearance of improvisation, but in reality is carefully studied, as much in the invention of formulas – the “soap bubble” that he used in Lampedusa to represent the egoism of the modern Herods – as in the fundamentals of the Christian faith that he loves most to repeat and are crystallized in a consoling “all is grace,” the grace of God who incessantly forgives although all continue to be sinners.

But in addition to the things that he says are those about which he is deliberately silent. It cannot be an accident that after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage.

Pope Bergoglio succeeded in dodging them even on the day that he dedicated to “Evangelium Vitae,” the tremendous encyclical published by John Paul II in 1995 at the culmination of his epic battle in defense of life “from conception to natural death.”

Karol Wojtyla and Benedict XVI after him exerted themselves incessantly and in person to combat the epochal challenge represented by the modern ideology of birth and death, as also by the dissolution of the creatural duality between male and female. Not Bergoglio. It seems well-established by now that he has decided to remain silent on these issues that touch upon the political sphere of the entire West, including Latin America, convinced that such statements are not the responsibility of the pope but of the bishops of each nation. He told the Italians in unmistakable words: “The dialogue with political institutions is your affair.”

The risk of this division of labor is high for Francis himself, given the hardly flattering judgment that he has repeatedly demonstrated he has on the average quality of the bishops of the world. But it is a risk that he wants to take. This silence of his is another of the factors that explain the benevolence of secular public opinion in his regard.


Also in his favor is the visible intention of reforming the Roman curia, and in particular of acting upon that festering boil which is the IOR.

He has entrusted the study of a reform of the curia to an international council of cardinals, all of them appointed by him. Who in turn have called upon trusted experts to advise them. Some have seen this as a first step towards a democratization of the Church, with the passage from a monocratic to an oligarchic authority. But as a perfect Jesuit, Bergoglio wants instead to apply to his exercise of the papacy the model proper to the Society of Jesus, in which the decisions are not made collegially, but only by the superior general, in absolute autonomy, after having listened separately to his assistants and to anyone else he may wish.

It is therefore foreseeable that in early October, when the eight cardinal advisors meet in Rome to place the collected plans in the basket, the views will be very disparate.

A forewarning of  disagreement has come from Germany, where a plan to reform the curia was also asked of the former director of the Munich branch of McKinsey, Thomas von Mitschke-Collande. The request was made to him by the powerful secretary of the German episcopal conference, the Jesuit  Hans Langerdörfer, but without the knowledge of the archbishop of Munich, Reinhard Marx, one of the eight advisors appointed by the pope, and on the contrary to his great disappointment, since he had come to a rather negative judgment on von Mitschke-Collande, especially after reading his latest book, with the polemical title: “Does the Church want to destroy itself? Facts and analyses presented by a business consultant.”

Meanwhile another figure of the German Church has sent the congregation for the doctrine of the faith some of the McKinsey man’s other writings, with the doctrinal errors it is alleged to contain highlighted.


If on the reform of the curia and on a more rigorous selection of candidates for bishop the initiatives of Pope Francis have remained for now only at the level of announcement – these too being hailed with a general consensus – a number of concrete actions have instead been taken already on the front of the IOR. Not so much by the pope but by different agents, some of them even in disagreement with each other, inside and outside of the Church. Moreover with a disastrous mishap that has fallen upon Francis himself.

The external agent that has had a decisive role in determining events has been the Italian magistracy, which in June ordered the arrest of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, until one month before the head of accounting for the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See. The charge is of illicit trafficking of money, including through accounts of the IOR and with the consent of the highest directors of the institute, carried out in 2012 precisely while the Vatican was engaged in front of the world in adopting the strictest international anti-laundering norms.

At the same time, the Italian magistracy has also closed its investigations concerning the director and vice-director of the IOR, Paolo Cipriani and Massimo Tulli, also accused of suspicious movements of money, in fourteen operations carried out between 2010 and 2011, therefore once again precisely while Benedict XVI was pushing forward a general work of reorganization and housecleaning of the Vatican financial offices.

The inexorable result of these actions of the Italian magistracy was the resignation of Cipriani and Tulli. that is, precisely the two who in the spring of 2012 the president of the IOR at the time, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, had demanded should be removed, maintaining that they were the ones truly responsible for the misdeeds of the institute. Obtaining instead his own brutal expulsion on May 24 by the board of the IOR, at the mandate of cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State


Monsignor Battista Ricca

Against this background of devastation, Pope Francis took two provisions strictly of his own initiative.

On June 15, he appointed as “prelate” of the IOR, with full powers, Monsignor Battista Ricca, whom he had gotten to know and appreciate as director of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he chose to live instead of in the pontifical apartments.

And the following 24th he instituted a commission of investigation on the IOR, reporting to him, made up of five authoritative outside figures, including the former ambassador of the United States to the Holy See and professor of law at Harvard, Mary Ann Glendon.

Unfortunately, however, when Pope Francis instituted this commission, he had already discovered that he had erred spectacularly in the first appointment, that of the “prelate.”

In the days immediately before June 24, in fact, meeting the Vatican nuncios who had come from all over the world to Rome, he had received from some of them incontestable information on the “scandalous conduct” of which Monsignor Ricca had given proof in 2000 and 2001 in Uruguay, when he was serving at that nunciature, from which he was brusquely removed before finally being called back to Rome.

The empty chair at the concert offered in his honor on June 22 was perhaps due in part to the sorrow felt by Francis at the discovery of this error of his, while meeting with the nuncios during those same hours and days. No pope is infallible. Not even the most beloved by all.


This article was published in “L’Espresso” number 28 of 2013, on newsstands as of July 12:

> L’Espresso


More details on the case of the “prelate” of the IOR, Monsignor Battista Ricca:

> Double Storm for the IOR

A previous evaluation of the debut of this pontificate:

> The Hundred Days of Francis and the Enigma of the Empty Chair

On Francis’s manner of governing, inspired by the Society of Jesus:

> Bergoglio, the “Black Pope” Dressed in White

An anthology of “Lumen Fidei,” the first encyclical of Francis, almost entirely written by Benedict XVI:

> The Encyclical of the Two Popes

And also by Benedict XVI, the unprecedented  appeal for a Church “stripped of earthly wealth” that he addressed to the German bishops and  laity in Freiburg on September 25, 2011:

> “To remove courageously that which is worldly in the Church”


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas