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Pope Francis working changes great and small

2013 May 10
by Paul Vallely

Rome is abuzz with enthusiasm for the new Pope whose picture has everywhere ousted the portraits of his predecessor, and heavily outnumbers those of the man church luminaries like to call the Great John Paul. There is an infectious joy among the crowds – the vast bulk of them Italians rather than foreign pilgrims – flocking to see him at his weekly audiences. So much so that St Peter’s piazza is now as full on a weekday as on many a previous Easter Sunday.

The atmosphere on May day was heady with excitement as tens of thousands of people waited for the arrival of Pope Francis to tour the square before his address to mark the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker whom the former Cardinal Bergoglio regards, along with the Virgin Mary, as the model for the ordinary believer seeking to be faithful to God through the small tasks of everyday life.

Work, he declared, was fundamental to human dignity. It is how we participate in the work of creation – which is why it is a scandal that so many today, particularly young people, are unemployed thanks to a “purely economic conception of society” which puts “selfish profit” before social justice.  Those in public office must therefore make every effort to give new impetus to employment. But society also needed to guard against making people victims of work that enslaves.

This points up one of the interesting characteristics of this new papacy. His remarks at the general audience were measured and largely abstract. But that morning at his daily 7am mass in one of a new style of off-the-cuff sermons he had been much more direct. He expressed his shock that the workers in the collapsed Bangladesh clothing factory were being paid just €38 a month. This was nothing less than a modern form of slavery which goes against God, he thundered.

Vatican officials are unsure yet as how to handle these unscripted homilies at the early morning masses to which the Pope invites different members of the public each day. When members of the Vatican Bank, known in Italian as the Istituto per le Opere di Religione  (IOR), were in the congregation he made a cryptic aside about “those guys at the IOR” adding “Excuse me, eh?” before describing their controversial institution as “necessary… up to a certain point”.  Vatican Radio reported the remark, but the official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano censored it. Slightly less cryptic was his decision to axe the bonus all the employees traditionally receive on papal transitions,  along with the annual €25,000 stipend paid to the five cardinals on the bank’s supervisory board.

The lack of a clear party line between the official radio station and newspaper is revealing of the liberating creative uncertainty currently abroad in Rome – and not just over how to handle the Pope’s much more free “thinking aloud” style of pronouncement. Curial officials are simultaneously stimulated and intimidated by Pope Francis’s more demotic approach and vivid turn of phrase condemning the “babysitter Church” which only “takes care of children to put them to sleep” instead of acting as a mother with her children – or telling priests that they should “smell of their sheep”.

Perhaps most unnerving was his joke about the doctrinal watchdog historically responsible for the Inquisition and, in more recent year under the then Cardinal Ratzinger, for silencing theologians and disciplining errant nuns. Barnabas’s apostolic visitation to the Christians in Antioch, the new pontiff quipped, could be viewed, “with a bit of a sense of humour” as “the theological beginning of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”.  A joking Pope. No wonder Rome is abuzz.

The Church Times

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