Rorate Caeli

A Pope who carefully plans what he says and does; and more from National Geographic's important new article on Francis

National Geographic has posted online its August 2015 feature article on Pope Francis (Will the Pope Change the Vatican? Or Will the Vatican Change the Pope?). Despite the presence of the standard clichés and stereotypes that mainstream secular American media is largely incapable of shedding when discussing Catholicism, the article's value is derived from its snippets of interviews with the Pope's circle of close friends. These shed much light on his plans and strategy for the future of the Church. Equally as important are the assertions that Pope Francis, far from being spontaneous and guileless, carefully plans the things he says and does. 

From the Synod of the Family, to clerical celibacy, to the Pope's attitude towards homosexuality, a clear picture emerges of a Papacy that, without explicitly aiming at changing doctrine, does aim at a very real revolution within the Church. Below is a selection of passages from the article that reveal much not only about the Pope's intentions, but also the unmistakable power and control that he exerts within the Vatican. 

When Federico Wals, who had spent several years as Bergoglio’s press aide, traveled from Buenos Aires to Rome last year to see the pope, he first paid a visit to Father Federico Lombardi, the longtime Vatican communications official whose job essentially mirrors Wals’s old one, albeit on a much larger scale. “So, Father,” the Argentine asked, “how do you feel about my former boss?” Managing a smile, Lombardi replied, “Confused.”

Lombardi had served as the spokesman for Benedict, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, a man of Germanic precision. After meeting with a world leader, the former pope would emerge and rattle off an incisive summation, Lombardi tells me, with palpable wistfulness: “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 somewhat helplessly, 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.’” 

The pope’s spokesman elaborates on the Vatican’s new ethos while sitting in a small conference room in the Vatican Radio building, a stone’s throw from the Tiber River. Lombardi wears rumpled priest attire that matches his expression of weary bemusement. Just yesterday, he says, the pope hosted a gathering in Casa Santa Marta of 40 Jewish leaders—and the Vatican press office learned about it only after the fact. “No one knows all of what he’s doing,” Lombardi says. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.” 


In attempting to divine the 78-year-old pope’s comings and goings, the closest Vatican officials have to an intermediary has been Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’s secretary of state, a much respected veteran diplomat—and, importantly, trusted by his boss, according to Wals, “because he’s not too ambitious, and the pope knows that. That’s a fundamental quality for the pope.” At the same time, Francis has drastically reduced the secretary of state’s powers, particularly with respect to the Vatican’s finances. “The problem with this,” Lombardi says, “is that the structure of the curia is no longer clear. The process is ongoing, and what will be at the end, no one knows. The secretary of state is not as centralized, and the pope has many relations that are directed by him alone, without any mediation.”

Valiantly accentuating the upside, the Vatican spokesman adds, “In a sense, this is positive, because in the past there were criticisms that someone had too much power over the pope. They cannot say this is the case now.”


“I believe we haven’t yet seen the real changes,” says Ramiro de la Serna, a Franciscan priest based in Buenos Aires who has known the pope for more than 30 years. “And I also believe we haven’t seen the real resistance yet either.”

Vatican officials are still taking their measure of the man. It is tempting for them to view the pope’s openhearted reactions as evidence that he is a creature of pure instinct. “Totally spontaneous,” Lombardi says of Francis’s much commented-on gestures during his trip to the Middle East—among them, his embrace of an imam, Omar Abboud, and a rabbi, his friend Skorka, after praying with them at the Western Wall. But in fact, Skorka says, “I discussed it with him before we left for the Holy Land—I told him, ‘This is my dream, to embrace beside the wall you and Omar.’”

That Francis agreed in advance to fulfill the rabbi’s wish makes the gesture no less sincere. Instead it suggests an awareness that his every act and syllable will be parsed for symbolic portent. Such prudence is thoroughly in keeping with the Jorge Bergoglio known by his Argentine friends, who scoff at the idea that he is guileless. They describe him as a “chess player,” one whose every day is “perfectly organized,” in which “each and every step has been thought out.” Bergoglio himself told the journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin several years ago that he seldom heeded his impulses, since “the first answer that comes to me is usually wrong.”


To Wals, his former press aide, Bergoglio’s careful entry into the papacy is completely unsurprising. Indeed, it was foreshadowed by the manner in which he vacated his previous office. Realizing there was a chance the conclave would elect him—after all, he had been the runner-up to Ratzinger after John Paul II’s death in 2005—the archbishop left for Rome in March 2013, says Wals, “with all letters finished, the money in order, everything in perfect shape. And that night before he departed, he called just to go over all the office details with me, and also to give me advice about my future, like someone who knew that maybe he would be leaving for good.”

Leave for good though he did, and in spite of the serenity he exhibits, Francis has nonetheless approached his new responsibilities with gravity leavened by his characteristic self-deprecation. As he said last year to a former student, Argentine writer Jorge Milia, “I kept looking in Benedict’s library, but I couldn’t find a user’s manual. So I manage as best I can.”


“Cardinal Bergoglio was basically unknown to all those gathered there,” [Cardinal] Turkson continues. “But then he gave a talk—it was kind of his own manifesto. He advised those of us gathered that we need to think about the church that goes out to the periphery—not just geographically but to the periphery of human existence. For him the Gospel invites us all to have that sort of sensitivity. That was his contribution. And it brought a sort of freshness to the exercise of pastoral care, a different experience of taking care of God’s people.”


Additionally, the preliminary Synod on the Family that Francis convened last October produced no sweeping doctrinal changes, which mollified conservative Catholics who had feared exactly that. But the actual synod this October could produce a different outcome. On the issue of lifting the ban on Communion for divorced Catholics whose marriages were not annulled, Scannone, the pope’s friend and former professor, says, “He told me, ‘I want to listen to everyone.’ He’s going to wait for the second synod, and he’ll listen to everyone, but he’s definitely open to a change.” Similarly, Saracco, the Pentecostal pastor, discussed with the pope the possibility of removing celibacy as a requirement for priests. “If he can survive the pressures of the church today and the results of the Synod on the Family in October,” he says, “I think after that he will be ready to talk about celibacy.” When I ask if the pope had told him this or if he was relying on intuition, Saracco smiles slyly and says, “It’s more than intuition.”


This would appear to be the pope’s mission: to ignite a revolution inside the Vatican and beyond its walls, without overturning a host of long-held precepts. “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.”