One hundred days after his election, Pope Francis is enjoying a positive image and heightened popularity. Although he hasn’t been in his seat long, observers estimate that signs are showing the “pope of the poor” will become an important decision-maker.
By addressing the faithful in a colloquial manner and by asking them to pray for him, the new pope knew from the moment of his election how to forge a sympathetic image, both to the media and the public.
“That attitude changes everything; he’s not an emperor but a Christian like the others,” says Swiss Jesuit Albert Longchamp.
That first impression has since been confirmed, says Maurice Page of the Catholic Press Agency in Fribourg. “He gave up the red shoes, visited sick cardinals in hospital, didn’t take up residence in the private Vatican apartments, doesn’t use the pope-mobile…it’s really a change of style compared to Benedict XVI who was more intellectual, shy and reserved.”
For the moment, nothing has tarnished that image, probably because no controversial decisions have arisen. It will take some major event, like a synod or an encyclical, before it is possible to tell which way his pontificate will go. “We don’t know whether he will be open or reactionary. He certainly portrays a sympathetic image, but what is he thinking behind that image?” Longchamp wonders.
Difficult decisions will arise, sooner or later. Important issues await the new pope. At the institutional level, the reform of the Roman Curia – in other words the ministers and other entities that aid the pope in his mission – has been on the to-do list for a long time. “There is also the question of ordaining married men, the church’s attitude toward divorcees and homosexuals as well as the role of women in the church,” says Longchamp.
Pope Francis in brief
Jorge Bergoglio was born on December 17, 1936, in Buenos Aires, the son of Italian immigrants.
After qualifying as a chemical technician he entered the Society of Jesus as a novice in 1958 at the age of 22, taking his initial vows as a Jesuit in 1960. He took his final vows in 1973.
He obtained a degree in philosophy in 1960, and completed his theological studies in 1967.
He was ordained a priest in 1969. Less than four years later he became the head of the Jesuits in Argentina, a post he held until 1979. During the military dictatorship (1976-83), he did everything to keep the Argentinian Jesuits out of politics.
He was named Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and became Metropolitan Archbishop in 1998. He was created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the papal conclave elected Bergoglio on March 13, 2013. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope and the first from the Americas and the southern hemisphere.
A strong signal
Up to this point, the pope’s only really tangible decision has been the nomination of a group of eight cardinals from around the world to help with the governance of the church. Only one of them is Italian and a member of the Roman Curia. The group’s first meeting is expected to take place at the beginning of October, but the pope is “already in contact with the cardinals”, the Vatican has said.
This is a novel approach. “We are seeing at the level of the pope the same thing that we have at diocese level, where there is always a council of priests who task is to assist the bishop,” says Bernard Litzler, the director of the Catholic Centre of Radio and Television. “In forming this group, the pope has given a strong signal from the very beginning that he may not rely on the Curia’s heads of departments but on this small group of people who are not in Rome. That’s absolutely crucial. I think several things are going on behind the scenes.”
No revolution expected
The pope’s image of closeness to the people and his Latin-American origins could lead the public to assume that he will be an open and progressive leader. The references to St Francis could also make people believe he will be a primarily spiritual pope who remains distanced from the material world. But attentive observers are remaining cautious; the image doesn’t necessarily correspond to reality.
“The previous pope suffered from a rather poor image,” says Bernard Litzler. “The danger is that our view of Benedict XVI was a bit too bleak and that we are in danger of seeing Francis a bit too much through rose-coloured spectacles. The labels people are attaching to him certainly correspond to the reality of the person that he is, but he is first and foremost a man of the church who feels he has a mission to accomplish.”
“You have to realise that he’s not a man of the left,” notes Longchamp. “There is an ambiguity between his image and his positions. His niceness is a false image. You don’t lead a billion Catholics by being nice, you also need a firm hand.”
On certain points, Pope Francis has already shown he will follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He has reaffirmed the church’s firm opposition to abortion and has again confirmed his predecessor’s move to rein in American nuns, regarded as being too feminist and liberal. “Basically, we shouldn’t expect a revolution,” says Page. “In my opinion, any major changes will have to do with the way the church is governed.”
In line with the world
Even if there is unlikely to be a revolution, there could be some changes in approach. “Benedict XVI had a pessimistic view of the world,” notes Page. “Francis is more positive, more like the early days of John-Paul II.”
“Having a Jesuit pope leading the church will bring the spirituality of St Ignatius and St Francis back to the forefront,” Litzler believes. “The church is engaged in a fundamental rediscovery of everything related to the spiritual aspect of Christianity. The Jesuit way of life is a way of Christian living in the modern world. "