Francis in your room

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Many years ago, when European politicians had just started to learn about political marketing, I met with Gavino Sanna, then creative director of Young & Rubicam in Italy. Sanna was already famous for his Barilla pasta advertising campaign, with the slogan “Dove c’è Barilla c’è casa” (Where there’s Barilla, there’s a home). In a series of ads filled with images of cozy Italian homes, catchy melodies and soft voiceovers, Barilla products evoked a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of family reunion during Christmastime. No screaming about low prices and discount shopping opportunities, as seen for decades in American advertising. Charm, harmony and happiness – a very polite knock on the door. “If you want to sell something, you cannot just bang on the door and enter people’s homes without permission,” Sanna told me. “You have to be allowed into their rooms – they have to open the door for you or turn on a TV set. In advertising, there is no difference between pasta and politicians.”

On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new Pope. It was a cold, rainy evening in Rome, and when the cardinal deacon appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and pronounced “Habemus Papam,” the crowd in the square below went almost silent. Most of the believers who flocked to Rome to see the new Pope did not know who Bergoglio was. When he stepped forward, dressed in an immaculate white tunic, the new Pope saw a huge square packed with umbrellas.

“Fratelli e sorelle carissimi.” Francis started delivering a solemn liturgy in total silence. As he heard his own voice, he paused for a moment. Then, changing his mind and his tone, he said simply “buona sera.” This warm greeting from the new pastor created an explosion of jubilee in the square. A roar erupted as the flock regained its shepherd – joy for the reestablishment of cosmic order, a humongous relief as the fear of uncertainty evaporated. The humble and tired voice that uttered the heartfelt “good evening” made Francis instantly trusted, a protective and likable Father to the humanity in the square.

In Sanna’s terms, Francis seems to know how to open doors and enter into people’s hearts. He was selling.

I like Francis. I like the fact that he took off the Prada-like shoes worn by previous Popes (though those red papal shoes were never made by a famous designer house, but by a master shoe maker in Milan). He put his soft, black hiking shoes on. I loved the leather bag he carried around in the first days of his papacy when he was walking to his apostolic office. Personally I’m not sure I could sleep in the cramped bedroom in the cardinals’ residence that the Pope decided to take for himself instead of the vast papal apartments. I like almost everything about the lifestyle of Bergoglio as a person.

Overnight, the Holy See became an interesting and important political institution again and I started to follow it with a renewed interest.

But remember, his emergence actually began with the incredible resignation of Joseph Ratzinger, alias Benedict XVI, known as the most conservative pope for decades. And yet, with his resignation, this conservative pope opened the possibility for the biggest change in the contemporary history of the Catholic Church. Future popes will have a hard time regaining the same feel of semi-divinity. The idea that they are put on the Church’s throne by the Holy Spirit is gone forever. Ratzinger’s move touched the untouchable, cracked the absolute power of the Pope and put the role of Holy See up for debate. As such, the Papacy became a center of political power like any other.

There have been many discussions about the reason for Ratzinger’s resignation. Plenty of speculation, spy novel-esque theories, and incredible stories about the work of the five-member committee that Benedict installed to investigate the leaks and rumors of plots to appropriate power among the Curia. There’s one incredible story about the meeting between the two popes in Castel Gandolfo – the papal summer residence outside Rome – where Benedict presumably handed Francis two different sets of investigation records. But the substance of Ratzinger’s departure was his incapacity to manage the power he was entrusted with when he became Pope in 2005. He thought that handling the Vatican’s affairs – corruption, the Curia’s rivalries, finances, international relations and so on – was a matter of the doctrine of faith. A convinced theologist, but without leadership experience, perhaps he should have never been elected Pope.

To be blasphemous to the extreme, I sometimes think of Pope Benedict as similar to Barack Obama. A very smart, uncorrupted man who, unfortunately, is not very good at managing the huge power that his position offers him. So while Ratzinger retired to write more books and play more Mozart, Francis put on his hiking shoes and grabbed the mandate to put things in order. More than a reformer, the post-Ratzinger Vatican needed a people-person and a good manager, someone who could fearlessly eradicate the luxurious life of the Curia and the corruption among the princes of the Church, stop God’s fraudulent bankers and move the Church closer to 99 percent of the population. Francis was made for that task.

But he is not a religious revolutionary. Yes, Francis has used the language of the Occupy Wall Street movement, leading some to call him a Marxist, which of course he is not. Francis is nearly as conservative as Benedict was when it comes to deeply rooted questions of the Church’s doctrine.

One factor that renders Francis more popular and seemingly more liberal than his predecessor lies in his Jesuit roots. Remember the experience of Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary in China who waited 15 years to be received in the Imperial Palace? When he finally got there, he incorporated Chinese concepts into his preaching so that converts were able to continue to venerate their ancestors.

The first misunderstanding about the Jesuit pope’s positions occurred when he was asked about gay Catholics and replied, “Who am I to judge?” Unfortunately, the phrase was not a sign of tolerance. He was not a liberal, but a Jesuit speaking. Jesuits are convinced that changes are only possible if they come from within. Therefore, according to the Jesuit Pope, it is not his role to make pronouncements about the sins of a person who is already in a dialog with the Lord. This is a personal matter and exactly what the pope meant when he said, “Se una persona e ‘gay e cerca il Signore e ha buona volonta,’ chi sono io a giudicarla?” There is no indication that Francis is much different than Ratzinger when it comes to core issues like recognizing same sex marriage.

Still, some see signs that Francis may be poised to soften some Church positions. Recently, Ross Douthat provided some interesting analysis of this issue in a long piece for the Atlantic, reviewing three biographies on Pope Francis’ Jesuit background. Looking at Bergoglio’s political moves in the Vatican, he comes out optimistic, arguing that Francis might be able to obtain reforms towards a more decentralized and less conservative Church. He expressed the hope that, in the process of balancing conservative and radical factions within the Church, he might deal with issues like allowing Catholics who have divorced and remarried to take communion. Such a reform had been advocated by liberal Cardinals like Walter Kasper. But according to the latest reports from the Vatican, Francis no longer supports this initiative and  Cardinal Kasper has recently fallen in disgrace after the Pope carefully evaluated the balance of power.

There have been some other signs that the Pope might be turning the boat around. Or is it that this smart Pope read Mao and used his “Let the hundred flowers bloom” campaign (a reference to Mao Zedong’s short-lived democratic campaign, which served to identify his enemies) to gain more power? To do what? This is something nobody seems to know. Not even John Allen, one of the most informed reporters on the subject of the Vatican. Allen, who is never unfriendly towards the Church, wrote a blog post in which he describes a long list of events, all symptoms of “déjà vu in reverse,” as he calls it. He basically predicts a comeback of conservatism.

My personal opinion is that conservatism never left the Vatican. Not during the period of John Paul the rock star, and even less during the process of restoring the medieval Church, a plan that was lauched – and would later fail – under Ratzinger. Regardless, half of the world still believes that Francis is a beloved man, the Pope of justice and of the poor. He might yet fill that role, but not if it means sacrificing a single value of hard-core Catholicism. One thing is certain, though: He is making the poor pray more than they did before.

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