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Papal inauguration, March 19, 2013. (photo: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

A very different pope

Christoph Strack / cb
March 13, 2014

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been leading the Catholic Church for a year now. The first Latin American pope remains as much a priest as pontiff, as conservative as he is reformatory. What makes Francis so special?


He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church and the first pontiff carrying the regnal name Francis, which comes with many expectations. Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose it to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to caring for the poor. The Argentine has been leading the Catholic Church as Pope Francis for one year now, ever since the fateful night of March 13, 2013, when white smoke rose over the Vatican.

Francis inhabits the office with a very particular style. He's doing things his own way and has a very specific understanding of the papal position. That became clear right away during his first speech on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, when Francis described himself as "Bishop of Rome." That is the first among many official titles the pope traditionally holds, but it's rarely been emphasized like this by popes in modern times. To other churches, no matter the denomination, this is an important sign of humbleness.

No pope in the modern era has seemed more like a regular priest than Francis. He seeks the company of the people, often to the dismay of Vatican authorities and security. In addition to his down-to-earth attitude, Francis speaks in a way that touches people's hearts and conveys sophisticated theology at the same time.

The layman's priest

He shows sympathy for people's sorrow - he made a point of visiting the Italian refugee island of Lampedusa and some of Rome's poorest districts. In an interview, he talked about his habit of telephoning ordinary people. "An 80-year-old widow who lost her son wrote to me," Francis said. "Now I call her once a month. I enjoy the role of the priest."

Pope Francis waving in a large crowd of refugees. (Photo: MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images)
The pope visited refugees on Lampedusa in July 2013Image: AFP/Getty Images

But that's not enough for Pope Francis. He wants to implement changes large and small in the Catholic Church. Rome won't be rebuilt in a day, of course, and changing the church's doctrines in particular will be difficult. But the Argentine pope aims to remind believers and clerics of the Gospel, just like Francis of Assisi did 800 years ago.

The pope moved out of the Papal Palace and into a simple communal residence. Every day, he preaches about the biblical message in easy-to-understand words. He calls out the flaws in the global economy and the deficits in refugee policies, issues that aren't high on the agenda anymore. He specifically seeks to include outcasts: refugees, poor people and disabled persons are often present at his public audiences in St. Peter's Square.

Two popes and a 'cabinet'

The decision of Benedict XVI. to step down carried much historical significance for the Church. And who would have thought they'd ever see two Roman-Catholic popes embrace each other like brothers during mass in St. Peter's Basilica?

This year, Francis is concentrating on family issues. Catholic clerics now dare to talk about different forms of partnership, about failed relationships, homosexuality and sexual morals. More cardinals than ever before discussed these issues in the Vatican in February, and Francis listened to all of them. A synod is planned for October. It might provide some hints as to how the Catholic Church will approach this important topic.

Pope Francis hugging former Pope Benedict. (Photo: REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)
Two popes walk into a church...Image: Reuters

Another innovation on the papal agenda: the group of eight cardinals from all corners of the world, which Francis summons like a government's cabinet every three months or so. Presumably, the members of this panel discuss further reforms or sensitive topics.

Francis, however, is not just an avid reformer. He can be just as conservative as he is liberal.

Hosting world leaders

In his first year, Pope Francis traveled abroad only once - to visit the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July. That trip was also an homage to Pope John Paul II., whom Francis will canonize in a few weeks. Besides that trip, people throughout the world have instead traveled to the Vatican to meet Francis. The number of visitors at the public audiences with the pope has multiplied by five compared to the audiences before his time.

Rio's beach filled with people. (Photo: TASSO MARCELO/AFP/Getty Images)
The mass Pope Francis held on World Youth Day in Rio drew a crowd of three millionImage: AFP/Getty Images

World leaders are also flocking to Rome: Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Dilma Rousseff. Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth II. will meet with Francis in the Vatican in a few weeks. Again and again, the pope has addressed politicians, calling for change. Vatican democracy has returned to being a clearly audible voice in the international cacophony.

In a paper published in November, Pope Francis harshly criticized capitalism. "We have created new idols," Francis wrote. "The worship of the ancient golden calf ... has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose."

With statements like these, the Argentine pope has showed that Latin American liberation theology, which interprets Christianity through the eyes of the poor, is alive and well.

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