As Pope Francis completes his first year in office, David Willey reports from Rome on the changes that have taken place in the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
Back in 1978 – which went down in history as the “year of the three Popes” – I remember meeting a gregarious American priest and journalist who drew up a pithy job description for the leadership of the Catholic Church on the death of Paul VI. “We need a happy, holy man, who smiles!” he said.
Well, we got just such a man in Papa Luciani, the Patriarch of Venice who charmed the world with his breezy manner and his simple, endearing smile in the 33 days he reigned as Pope John Paul I before his sudden death – most likely from a heart attack.
Conspiracy theorists leapt to the conclusion that he might have been poisoned because some Vatican cardinals feared that he planned revolutionary changes in the running of his Church.
No post mortem examination was ever carried out – there is no legal requirement for this in the sovereign Vatican City state – but no proof of a criminal assassination plot inside the Apostolic Palace has ever emerged.
The reputation of the Vatican as a place where – through history – dark plots have been hatched to despatch unwelcome Popes dies hard.
Massimo Franco in his new book on Pope Francis tells the story that on the eve of his departure from Buenos Aires to Rome to attend the Conclave which was to elect him as Pope, the future Pope Francis met an old woman parishioner who looked him squarely in the eyes and advised him: “Eminence, when you go to Rome take a dog with you. And get it to taste all the food they offer you before you touch it!”
Now four decades later we have had another friendly, unassuming – and smiling – Pope occupying St Peter’s throne.
Pope Francis has already won for himself the admiration of millions of Catholics – and also members of other religions and of no religion – for his openness, his refusal to adhere to the external trappings of papal power, his decision not to live in the stately papal apartments of his predecessors, and to share instead a modest guest house with other Vatican clerics.
The guest house which has become his new permanent home has an interesting history.
The Casa Santa Marta was originally built at the end of the of the 19th Century as a quarantine station for potential victims of a feared cholera epidemic in Rome.
The plague never arrived, but the building served for years as a sort of field hospital for Rome’s poor and later during World War Two became an important allied spy centre during the Nazi occupation of Rome.
British and American envoys to the (neutral) Holy See lived there and sent their reports home via the Vatican’s private diplomatic bag.
In a long interview with a fellow Jesuit, now issued worldwide in book form, Pope Francis tellingly uses the metaphor of his Church as a field hospital.
“The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds,” he says.
“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”
Some deep wounds suffered by the Church as a result of clerical sexual abuse scandals in many countries are still festering, however, a year after Pope Francis’s election.
True, he has set up a new committee to oversee local guidelines set up by alarmed bishops’ conferences around the world and to ensure better care for the victims of predator priests.
But Francis has apparently turned a deaf ear towards those clamouring for a real zero tolerance policy by the Vatican.
A Polish bishop recently employed as the Pope’s ambassador to Santo Domingo, who was accused by authorities there of sexually abusing children, has been given asylum and protection from extradition proceedings.
And Francis has remained curiously mum in public about official cover-ups and the persistent refusal by the Vatican to release details of its records of alleged molestation of minors by priests.
He is the first Pope in history to live in the same place as his predecessor. Former Pope Benedict lives a few hundred metres away in his own quarters and we are told that the two Popes see each other from time to time to share a meal or discuss Church policies.
“It’s like having a venerable grandfather around,” says Pope Francis generously. He has always played down the possibility that there might be unwanted interference from his living predecessor as a result of Pope Benedict’s sudden decision to resign – unprecedented in modern times – a year ago.
The most important decisions that Pope Francis has made during his first year in office have revolved around Vatican finances and the reform of the much criticised Vatican Bank. He has called in another cardinal from the Southern hemisphere, Cardinal George Pell from Australia, to set up a new Vatican ministry of economic affairs, to co-ordinate all the future financial activities of the Holy See.
Pope Francis eschews the superstar status he has been accorded by the world’s media.
“Painting me as a sort of superman, a kind of star, I find offensive,” he told the editor of Italy’s leading daily newspaper. “I am a man who laughs, cries, sleeps quietly, and has friends, just like everyone else. A normal person.”
He also prays a lot, and makes decisions only after profound reflection. He has admitted making “many mistakes” during his long ecclesiastical career.
But future careers inside the Catholic Church are not going to be like they have been in the past, he has warned upwardly mobile priests, bishops and cardinals.
Frugal lifestyles and care for the poor are the buzzwords in the Vatican today.
A former top Vatican official who suffered compulsory retirement under Pope Francis and who has spent a lot of money improving the stately “grace and favour” Vatican apartment allocated for his retirement, now hesitates to ask Pope Francis to dinner for fear of attracting unfavourable comment.