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Rome is abuzz with the joking pope

10 May 2013

Italians are warming to Francis's informal style, says 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 Blessed John Paul II. There is an infectious joy among the crowds - the vast bulk of them Italians rather than foreign pilgrims - flocking to his weekly audiences: so much so that St Peter's piazza is now as full on a weekday as on many an earlier Easter Sunday.

The atmosphere on May Day was heady with excitement, as tens of thousands waited for the arrival of Pope Francis to tour the square, before his address to mark the feast of St Joseph the Worker.

Work, the Pope 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 needs to guard against making people victims of work that enslaves, he said.

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

Vatican officials are unsure yet about how to handle these unscripted homilies at the early masses, to which the Pope invites different members of the public each day. When people from the Vatican Bank, known 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 de- scribing their 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 that 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 in Rome. Curial officials are simultaneously stimulated and intimidated by Pope Francis's more demotic approach and vivid turn of phrase, as he condemns the "babysitter Church", which "takes care of children to put them to sleep" instead of acting as a mother with her children.

Perhaps most unnerving was his joke about the doctrinal watchdog that was historically responsible for the Inquisition, and, in more recent years, for silencing theologians and disciplining errant nuns. Barnabas's apostolic visitation to Antioch, Francis 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 the city is abuzz.

Paul Vallely is writing a biography of Pope Francis for Bloomsbury Publishing.

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