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Why Italians Love Francis
By BEPPE SEVERGNINI
Published: October 3, 2013 91 Comments
ROME — ONE day, as Pope Francis was leaving the Casa Santa Marta, a spartan guesthouse in Vatican City where he lives in preference to the lonely but luxurious papal apartments, he met a bishop waiting for his driver. “Can’t you walk?” the pope smiled.
Times Topic: Pope Francis
The story is one of many being told around the Vatican since Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen to succeed Joseph Ratzinger as pope on March 13. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. What matters is that the number of needlessly motorized senior clerics has plummeted.
If John Paul II was the Roman Catholic Church’s rock star, and Benedict XVI its preceptor, Pope Francis is its innovator, the church’s Steve Jobs.
“I look on the church as a field hospital after a battle,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s no point in asking a seriously injured man how high his blood sugar is! You tend his wounds.”
And there is much to tend. The new pope promises new takes on homosexuality, on couples who divorce and remarry, on relations with other religions and on the importance of conscience.
Francis has substituted a reluctance to accept papal office — a reluctance that led the cardinals to opt for Mr. Ratzinger, the German cardinal who became Benedict XVI, in 2005 — with ceaseless activity and disarming sincerity. “Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy,” he told the 89-year-old journalist (and atheist) Eugenio Scalfari.
Nor has he stopped at words. A few days ago the Vatican Bank closed the accounts of some 900 organizations and embassies, some of them suspected of money laundering. The Italian-Argentine Francis worked as a bouncer in his Buenos Aires youth — it may have helped.
Italians, whom the pope regards as neighbors, are dumbfounded. Resigned to watching high-ranking clerics play down the excesses of Silvio Berlusconi — a dreadful role model but an obsequious ally — they are astonished to see the pope distance himself from politics. They are used to the pro-business mentality of popular ecclesiastical movements like Comunione e Liberazione, and they struggle to believe that Francis honestly prefers good works to good dividends.
Italy’s parish priests are particularly happy with him. With attendance at Sunday Mass now below 30 percent of the population, parishes are quick to welcome a pope who thrills believers and inspires respect in nonbelievers.
Francis likes people at least as much as Benedict XVI liked books. The German pope gave Catholics an unremitting theology lesson. The Argentine gives them reassurance and understanding. All you need is love. Don’t be surprised if Francis starts quoting John Lennon.
This pope communicates. Not because he tweets; the powerful everywhere do. Not because he calls strangers on the phone. Not because he paid the bill at the Domus Internationalis Paulus VI, where he stayed in the days before the conclave. Francis’s ability to communicate derives from empathy, not individual actions. Only Bill Clinton and the early Barack Obama showed the same ability to get on other people’s wavelengths.
When Francis moves among crowds, he catches the gifts they throw to him and gives a thumbs up. He poses for photos with students. When he met with the Argentine soccer team and one of the players, Ezequiel Lavezzi, promptly sat on the papal throne, Francis chuckled, “That’s my people!” adding later, “Now do you see why I’m like this?”
Francis knows how to smile, and how to make others smile. He understands that irony is the lay sister of compassion: it enables you to accept the world’s imperfections. When asked who his favorite saints were, he said: “You want me to rank them, but you can only do that with things like sports. I could tell you who the best Argentine soccer players are.” In the end, he admitted that his favorites were Saint Augustine and Saint Francis. (No mention of Lionel Messi on that occasion.)
Francis reminds Italians of John XXIII, the socially conscious pope who reigned from 1958 to 1963 and whose ingenuous portrait continues to grace their homes, a mountain man who initiated the reformist Second Vatican Council. “The most serious evils afflicting the world,” Francis told Mr. Scalfari, “are youth unemployment and the solitude to which many elderly people are consigned.”
You might say that the church should be saying that sort of thing anyway. Of course it should. But that’s the point: until Francis the church, intent on proclaiming unrenounceable principles, had ceased to say it.
When he presented himself to the world on March 13, Francis said in Italian: “Brothers and sisters, good evening! You know that it was the conclave’s duty to give Rome a new bishop. My brother cardinals appear to have gone almost to the ends of the earth to find one, but here we are.” Where he’ll take the church from here is anyone’s guess.Beppe Severgnini is a writer and columnist for Corriere della Sera. A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 4, 2013, on page A35 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Italians Love Francis.