And John Allen is taking notes.
One could argue that in most of the ways that matter, the change has already arrived.
In just four months, Francis has revived the international prestige of the papacy and its moral capital. The Italian edition of Vanity Fair recently declared him its “Man of the Year,” including snippets of praise from unlikely quarters such as Elton John, who termed the pontiff “a miracle of humility in the era of vanity.”
Polling in various parts of the world show approval ratings that would be the envy of any politician or celebrity. A recent survey in Italy showed Francis’ popularity at 85 percent, with spillover effects for the church; the percentage of Italians saying they trust the church was up to 63 percent, from 46 percent in January during the twilight of Benedict XVI’s papacy.
“There has been a worldwide change in attitudes toward the papacy since the election of Francis,” said veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. “There has been a great outpouring of sympathy, not only among believers but also from people who are very secular or far from the church.”
If anything, Politi may be understating it.
In terms of public opinion, Francis is already on the cusp of achieving the iconic status of Nelson Mandela, a figure of unquestioned moral authority. It’s telling that during his trip to Brazil, protagonists in the nation’s current unrest virtually tripped over one another in a contest to see who could demonstrate more deference and respect.
There’s also a sense in which Francis is the “Teflon pope,” in that nothing bad seems to stick. When anything scandalous happens, reaction isn’t to blame the pope, but to see it as additional proof of why he’s needed.
Case in point: In late July, an Italian media outlet published reports that the pope’s handpicked prelate to reform the Vatican bank had been involved in brazen gay affairs while serving as a Vatican diplomat in Uruguay more than a decade ago. Those inclined to take the reports at face value saw them as proof of a “gay lobby” that Francis will upend; those disposed to dismiss them said they’re evidence that Francis’ reform is eliciting resistance.
What everyone could agree on is that Francis is the solution, not the problem.
Truth to be told, most ordinary folk aren’t paying attention to such inside baseball anyway. Vatican watchers may fixate on questions such as who Francis will name as the next cardinal secretary of state, or what changes he’ll make at the Institute for the Works of Religion (the Vatican bank), but the only question most people have about a pope is, “Does he inspire?”
For now, the answer seems to be yes. Given all the scandals, bad press and controversy the Catholic church has weathered over the past decade, if that’s not a revolution, it’s hard to know what one would look like.
In Rome, too, there are clear signs that a new order has already arisen.
Clergy who chafed under what they perceived as a mounting liturgical fastidiousness during the late John Paul II and Benedict years — showing up for a papal Mass, for instance, only to be told they weren’t properly dressed because they weren’t sporting enough crimson and lace — report all that ended in mid-March.
Francis’ humbler lifestyle is having a ripple effect. Princes of the church today are more likely to be spotted wearing simple black clerical dress rather than the usual sartorial splendor, and some have begun to sign their names in official correspondence simply as “Don So-and-So,” avoiding “His Eminence” or other bits of court nomenclature.
Even beggars who ply their trade around the Vatican have clued in that something has changed. Vatican personnel say that if they spurn a request for spare change today, they’re likely to hear back, “Cosa direbbe Papa Francesco?” — meaning, “What would Pope Francis say?”
There’s much more. Read it all. It’s excellent.