VATICAN CITY – Less than a year into his papacy, Pope Francis has raised expectations among the world’s 1 billion Catholics that change is coming. He has already transformed the tone of the papacy, confessing himself a sinner, declaring “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.
Less apparent, if equally significant for the future of the church, is how Francis has taken on a Vatican bureaucracy so plagued by intrigue and inertia that it contributed, numerous church officials now believe, to the historic resignation of his predecessor Benedict XVI last February.
Francis’ reign may not ultimately affect centuries-old church doctrine, but it is already reshaping the way the church is run and who is running it. Francis is steadily subbing moderates for traditionalists as the church prepares for a debate about the role of far-flung bishops in Vatican decision-making and a broad discussion on the family that could touch on delicate issues such as homosexuality and divorce.
In St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, Francis, dressed in golden robes, hinted at the major changes he had already set in motion. “What happened this year?” he asked. “What is happening, and what will happen?”
To some of the scarlet-clad cardinals seated in rows of gilded armchairs at the New Year’s service, the answer was becoming clear. Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the highest-ranking Americans in the Vatican, found his influence diluted. Another archconservative, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, was demoted. Among the bishops, Archbishop Guido Pozzo was sidelined.
To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping them to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.
On Sunday, Francis made his first mark on the exclusive College of Cardinals that will elect his successor by naming prelates who in many cases hail from developing countries and the Southern Hemisphere. He pointedly instructed the new cardinals not to consider the job a promotion or to waste money with celebratory parties.
“It was an important year,” said Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-ranking official and one of only four Vatican officials Francis will make a cardinal in February. Asked in a New Year’s Eve interview about the personnel changes, he replied that it was only natural that the Argentine pope should prefer to have “certain people who are able to advance his policy.”
Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.
“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. He said some officials have stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”
Around Christmas, Francis met with the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina, the 16th-century reception hall in the Apostolic Palace, to deliver one of the most important papal speeches of the year. Benedict used his last such Christmas address to denounce same-sex marriage. Francis used his first to castigate his own colleagues in the Curia.
He warned the men in red and purple skullcaps and black cassocks arrayed around him that the Curia risked drifting “downwards towards mediocrity” and of becoming “a ponderous, bureaucratic customs house.”
He also called on the prelates to be “conscientious objectors” to gossip.
It was a pointed rebuke of the poisonous atmosphere that had troubled Benedict’s papacy, and that was often blamed on the former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Francis is dismantling the power circle of Bertone, who led a ring of conservatives centered around the city of Genoa, Italy. In September, Francis demoted Piacenza, a Bertone ally, from his post running the powerful Congregation of Clergy. To some it was an indication that the new pope could act with a measure of ruthlessness.
Several Vatican officials said that Piacenza’s greatest transgression had been undermining his predecessor, a Brazilian prelate close to Francis who appeared with him on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election.