July 22, 2013 in Nation/World

Pope well-suited to reform church

Henry Chu Los Angeles Times

VATICAN CITY – He wades into crowds without hesitation, shaking hands and kissing babies. He cracks jokes and delivers unscripted remarks, to the occasional dismay of staffers scrambling to keep up.

Four months in office, Pope Francis is engaged in what seems like a U.S. presidential campaign in reverse: Without really trying or even wanting it, he has won election to the top job. Now he’s out in the field pressing the flesh, listening to constituents and working to win hearts, minds and – given his line of business – souls.

As he prepares for his first overseas trip as pope, starting today, Francis has earned praise for his jovial manner, his evident love of people, his simple lifestyle, his commitment to the downtrodden and his determination to put a personal stamp on the papacy.

He routinely packs St. Peter’s Square for his weekly appearance. Hundreds of thousands of devotees, perhaps millions, are expected to turn out to see Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, during his trip to Brazil, the world’s most populous Roman Catholic nation.

But many of his toughest decisions are to come as he seeks to set the Roman Catholic Church on a new path and to shake up the scandal-plagued, faction-ridden Vatican. Building a reservoir of public support and improving the church’s image outside the Vatican should serve him well in that mission.

“It definitely helps him and strengthens his position, because now the church’s voice is listened to instead of just rejected,” said Alessandro Speciale, the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.

No one suggests that the pope’s energetic outreach is merely an act.

Even cynics acknowledge that, in Argentina, Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio was known for a populist touch, humble living and plain speaking, a product of his Jesuit background.

Since his election here in March to replace Benedict XVI, Francis’ decisions to forgo many of the trappings of office, such as frequent use of the papal limo, and to speak up for the marginalized, including immigrants and Muslims, are genuine expressions of his personality and beliefs, analysts say.

“He’s not an actor,” said Andrea Tornielli, coordinator of the Vatican Insider website. “He’s himself.”

But Francis’ unassailable humility has had tactical benefits and disrupted business as usual within the Vatican.

Take his insistence on living in the Casa Santa Marta guesthouse on the Vatican grounds, rather than the papal penthouse of the Apostolic Palace.

Although Francis, 76, says he prefers the simplicity of his present lodgings, the decision has enabled him to exercise greater control over his agenda. Powerful aides at times have restricted access to his predecessors.

“No one decides how he allots his time, who sees him. He picks up the phone and calls up people,” Speciale said.

“This is really revolutionary,” Speciale added. “This was the main thing he did to ensure he was free to pursue his agenda, to maintain his wider view and not to be isolated.”

At the guesthouse, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics has met not just with cardinals and other senior church officials, some of whom used to wait months to bend the pope’s ear.

He also has found time for lower-ranking priests, bureaucrats and Vatican workers. One of his first Masses at the guesthouse was attended by the Vatican’s gardeners and cleaners.

Many Catholics, laypeople and clerics, are eager for Francis to clean up the Curia, the Vatican administration, which has seen a string of embarrassing scandals.

The Curia’s problems are rumored to be a prime reason Benedict chose to become the first pope in several centuries to step down voluntarily. Many of the cardinals who elected Francis have urged him to bring thorough reform to the Vatican.

Vatican watchers predict Francis’ first major moves will occur after the summer, among them, a shake-up of high-ranking personnel. Within weeks of his inauguration, the pope appointed a commission to advise him on reform. The eight members are cardinals who work outside the Curia. The panel will hold its first meeting in October.

“Pope Francis is a Jesuit. … They listen to people,” said Antonio Sabetta, a professor at Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. “They don’t decide immediately. They want to know everything. At the end of the day, they make a decision.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email