AMID all the fanfare surrounding the anniversary yesterday of
Pope Francis's first year in office, one detail failed to grab
public attention - and yet it was all the more revealing for that.
It goes to the heart of one of the great ironies at the heart of
the Francis papacy.
Last weekend, the treasurers of Roman Catholic religious orders
from around the world met in Rome to discuss how they could use
their financial assets "for the service of humanity". It came after
the Pope last autumn rather pointedly suggested that religious
orders - which still have 900,000 men and women around the world,
but which are in decline - should not be turning their empty
monasteries and convents into hotels and restaurants, as has been a
trend in recent years. Instead, they should be given over to the
homeless and to refugees, he said.
It was the kind of initiative that the world has come to expect
from Pope Francis. But what was not widely noticed was that the
treasurers had been summoned to the meeting in a letter dated 1
January, and yet the media did not find out until a few days before
Pope Francis runs a very tight ship. He consulted few people on
who should be numbered among the 19 new cardinals he created last
month, mainly from the world's poorest countries. "He kept the list
pretty much in his back pocket," one archbishop told me. "No one
knew who was on it." So much so that the Archbishop of Westminster,
the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, learned that his name was there from
the media rather than through any leak from Rome.
There is an irony to this, considering that under the previous
papacy, a phrase, Vatileaks, had to be coined to describe its
colander qualities. In contrast, Pope Francis keeps his own diary,
sends personal emails, and rings people without consulting his
officials, who are often in the dark about what is planned until it
actually happens. Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the private secretary
whom Francis inherited from Pope Benedict XVI, is said not to have
much to do beyond formal ceremonies and audiences, and has a great
deal of time on his hands.
There is a further irony in this. It goes to the heart of Fr
Jorge Mario Bergoglio's time as leader of the Jesuits in Argentina.
Then, his domineering style made it clear that this was a man with
a steely vision of the Church. His style may have changed, but his
vision has not. It is as clear as ever - perhaps clearer.
The central paradox is that the Pope wants above all to restore
collegiality to decision-making in the Church. And yet he wants to
avoid doing so by the autocratic fiat typical of the old
papal absolute monarchy.
His answer has been to put in process a more consultative
approach. He has begun with church teaching on sexual issues. He
has sent out a questionnaire to elicit the views of lay Catholics
and priests about the Church's pastoral practice on premarital sex,
contraception, divorce, and homosexuality. He has empowered bishops
to give their views openly, without fear of censure, and looks set
to allow them to make decisions in the forthcoming Synod of
Bishops. Anglicans may well have advice to offer on this incipient
searching towards a sharing of the articulation of authority.
How fast will all this move? When the Vatican spokesman Fr
Federico Lombardi was asked this by journalists, there was another
irony in his reply: "Only the Pope can decide."
Paul Vallely's biography Pope Francis: Untying the
knots is published by Bloomsbury.