Fisher of Men: The New World of Pope Francis

Openness, modesty, change: Pope Francis launched a revolution in the Vatican.

ByFiona Ehlers, SPIEGEL
July 26, 2013, 3:18 PM

July 28, 2013— -- Openness, modesty, change: Pope Francis has launched a revolution in the Vatican as he seeks to clean up the Catholic Church and improve its image. In the process, the pontiff is making friends as well as enemies.

The great awakening begins at 7 a.m. every morning in the Vatican, when Pope Francis stands before 80 or 90 employees in the austere, modern chapel of the Santa Maria guesthouse and reads the first mass of the day. He speaks Italian with a soft Spanish intonation, reading the mass without a manuscript and without using Latin -- and looking directly into the faces of the congregation. He then vanishes through the vestry to join the worshippers, folding his hands, bowing his head and praying.

The Vatican's garbage collectors were the first employees the new pope invited to these morning masses, followed by the security personnel, gardeners, nuns and even Vatican Bank advisors. Many of the Vatican's roughly 4,000 employees come to the mass -- not because they are required to, but because they adore Francis.

"He has no trepidations," says a fellow resident of the guesthouse on the southern edge of Vatican City, where Francis lives. He gives "simple sermons (with) warm words. He has overcome the separation between the laity and the clergy."

At lunch, Jorge Mario Bergoglio stands in the cafeteria and waits for his coffee to drip out of the machine. "He sat alone at first, and we would stare over at him," says the fellow resident. But now they sit with him. Recently, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, one of the youngest members of the conclave, went over to the pope and asked: "Holy Father, may I?" "Of course, holy son," the pope replied.

Francis is a fisher of men, much like former Pope John Paul II. Almost four months after his election on March 13, after his first, almost shy "buona sera" from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, he has taken his office to heavenly heights. He makes it easy for people to love him. They like his incongruous approach and his plain words. "Pray for me," he tells them, or "bon appetit." They like the fact that he ignores protocol, that he washed the feet of a Muslim woman at Easter, drives a Ford Focus or takes the bus and chose to live in the guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace.

Pope of Gestures

Bergoglio is the first Jesuit and, since the Middle Ages, the first non-European in the papacy. He was born in Argentina, at the "end of the world," as he says, to Italian immigrant parents. It is this perspective from which he still looks at the Old World. It allows him to demonize the financial crisis, poverty and instability that are now plaguing Southern Europe. This pope lives in the present and is more political than his predecessor. But it is also clear that he will remain silent on certain issues and stick to his German predecessor's approach: the ordination of women, celibacy, abortion and gay marriage.

Benedict XVI was the pope of words, a professorial pope whose masses resembled lectures. Francis is the opposite. Instead of arguing, he appeals to people; he is best understood through his gestures and appearances. His visit to the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa was a gesture of compassion, and it offered a taste of his approach: going to the people, mingling with them and asking uncomfortable questions.

In his sermons, Francis often criticizes the "sophisticated church," which he accuses of revolving around itself and striving for power and wealth. By contrast, Francis wants "a poor church and a church for the poor." He wants it to venture out to the periphery, to the margins of society. This is the concept of the "theology of the people," which influenced Francis. In the 1970s, its adherents left their rectories and moved to the slums.

There is hardly any spot in Europe that is more peripheral than Lampedusa, where Africa begins and where Europe is defending its fortress of prosperity. During his visit, the pope stood on an altar made from the wood of stranded ships on which refugees had died, and raged against the "globalization of indifference." He asked who was to blame for the suffering of refugees, and why so many people have forgotten empathy and lost the ability to weep. It was a promising start to his papacy.

But despite that appearance, Francis still isn't the "pop star pope" many believed he was at the beginning. He is a man of action, and he operates at an astonishing pace. "He acts like someone who knows that he doesn't have forever. After all, he only has half a lung, and he sways like a ship when he walks. He'll be 77 in December," says an employee of the curia who prefers to remain unnamed.

'Still Getting Warmed Up'

Francis will have a hardworking first summer as pope, with no plans to take a break at the papal summer resistance in Castel Gandolfo. The papal secretary of state could be appointed soon and will become a key figure in bringing about the reform of the curia so often called for, someone to finally put a stop to the old-boy networks, nepotism and waste of money. The curia is currently divided into those who are concerned that the pope is overexerting himself, and those who are afraid of the new order. "The pope is still getting warmed up," says the source from the curia. "We are crouching in the trenches, and quite a few are trembling."

One of the new pope's biggest reform projects is the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), more commonly known as the Vatican Bank. On a recent July morning, a few nuns were standing in the domed bank lobby, where there was little activity. Nevertheless, something akin to perestroika seemed to be in the works, because we were suddenly granted entry to this massive, otherwise off-limits fortress next to the Secretariat of State. We were allowed to shake hands with the head of the bank, while advisors in pinstriped suits guided us through the hallways. Is this the "Francis effect" everyone is talking about, or just a rushed session of crisis PR?

At the end of the corridor is the secret nerve center, which we were also allowed to visit briefly. It contains a table, cables and many monitors, where a Harvard professor and a dozen external management consultants were sitting with their sleeves rolled up. Their job is that of auditing the accounts, reviewing every transaction for more than €10,000, and screening every customer. One was already caught in late June trying to bring €20 million from Switzerland to Rome in a private jet: Monsignore Nunzio Scarano, the chief accountant for the Vatican's property portfolio, who had intended to launder money through the IOR. It is clear that others will follow, now that the Vatican aims to wipe the slate clean in God's bank.

Francis is paying special attention to the IOR. Benedict did so, as well, when he appointed Ernst von Freyberg as the bank's director in February. But it was already too late, and Freyberg showed little interest in the details.

First Mistake?

Francis, on the other hand, issued a hand-written decree in late June to form an investigative committee. Two days later, the chief accountant was arrested and on July 2, the two general directors abruptly resigned. Last Friday, Francis appointed a special commission to advise him directly on economic issues and create more transparency. The pope also appointed a prelate who has access to all bank meetings and reports directly to Francis.

That appointment, though, could prove to be Pope Francis' first mistake. He chose Monsignore Battista Ricca, the former administrator of the Vatican guesthouse, for the job. But the magazine L'Espresso revealed last week that Ricca was transferred to the guesthouse in 2001 for disciplinary reasons, because he was allegedly living with and maintaining a homosexual relationship with a man in the nunciature of Montevideo and was beaten up in a gay bar. So does it exist after all, the "gay lobby" at the Vatican, whose members secure positions for each other? Did the curia deliberately conceal Ricca's past from the pope? These questions will have to remain unanswered for now, but the Ricca appointment could come back to haunt the pope.

Meanwhile, Alessia Giuliani, 42, a chain-smoking resident of Rome, is waiting on St. Peter's Square. She is standing at the obelisk, holding her paparazzi camera with its telephoto lens. It is Wednesday morning, and the weekly general audience is about to begin. Hundreds of thousands of people are flooding into the square -- a sea of smartphones and sunshades.

Giuliani began taking pictures of groups of pilgrims 15 years ago until she eventually became the first woman to join the illustrious circle of papal photographers. Now that Francis has come into office, she needs to use stronger flashes and a larger aperture, because he is darker-skinned than his predecessor. Although she sells more photos now, she hardly has a private life anymore, because Francis often makes spontaneous appearances, so that she has to chase after him.

She looks through her lens and sees Francis on the pope mobile, giving the thumbs up sign. His chief of security lifts children into the vehicle, and Francis distributes kisses, accepts the gift of a jersey from his beloved football club, Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro, and hugs a girl with Down syndrome. He continues in this vein, often for as long as an hour, until the mass begins. "Che spettacolo" -- what a spectacle -- says a Roman woman, as she shakes her head and turns away.

The photographer lowers her camera and says that the scenery is too indistinct. She complains that she hasn't yet been able to capture an image that truly describes the new pope. The longer she watches him, says Giuliani, the more she fears that there could soon be too many images of him -- that his gestures could lose their meaning and his messages become trivial.

How They Preach in Latin America

Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, 65, can hear the cheers from the weekly public mass in his apartment at Santa Anna Gate. He prefers to call it counseling rather than a spectacle, noting that this is how they preach in Latin America.

The archbishop has taken over the former apartment of Joseph Ratzinger, who lived there for 23 years, as well as his former job as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which makes him the church's supreme protector of the faith. The son of a foreman at an Opel plant in Mainz, he sometimes greets private visitors in a tracksuit. He is in good spirits, as he celebrates his first anniversary in office; it looks as though the new pope plans to keep him.

The unfortunate situation involving the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) also seems to have been put to rest. A member of the order, Richard Williamson, had denied the Holocaust, and yet Benedict rehabilitated the archconservative bishop nonetheless. Now the Vatican's dialogue with the SSPX seems to have been suspended until further notice.

Archbishop Müller is with Francis on his trip this week to World Youth Day in Brazil. He worked as a priest in Peru and is friends with liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who Rome punished in the 1980s because of his Marxist views. Another change under Francis is that the church will be less inclined to fight rebels within its ranks.

The fact that Francis chose Brazil as the destination for his first major trip was meant to show, says Müller, that the church consists of more than "that dissolute bunch from Rome, with their pomp and arrogance." He hopes that the sermons in Rio de Janeiro will provide a boost similar to that emanating from his visit to Lampedusa. Francis plans to speak clearly in Rio, directing his comments to the poor in the Varginha favela, young criminals and drug addicts.

Wildly Enthusiastic

Yet as approachable as Francis seems, it is difficult to meet him. In mid-May, with the German chancellor having just arrived for a private audience, a select group of Germans were allowed to greet the pope afterward. We spent several minutes walking through the corridors of the Apostolic Palace, past saluting Swiss Guards, before being asked to wait in antechambers with damask-covered walls. One could hear Chancellor Angela Merkel's girlish giggle from within. "The next time we'll have pizza on the piazza," she said in German as she left.

Francis, shorter than he seems in pictures and exhausted after a 47-minute conversation about the market economy and financial regulations, stayed behind. His handshake was firm and his eyes curious. There was nothing pompous about him; he wasn't wearing the golden Ring of the Fishermen, but rather a plastic watch.

What does one say to the pope? Perhaps that Rome seems like a new place since his election, like a city that has awakened from a long sleep? He has undoubtedly heard it before, but he still laughed heartily, and he seemed genuinely pleased and real, like a person who is wildly enthusiastic about his job.Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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