After weeks of inclement weather, the sun parted the clouds over St. Peter’s Square in Rome early Tuesday morning, just in time for Pope Francis of Argentina to take center stage at a party fit for a king. The Vatican was in full pomp and circumstance mode with the Sistine Chapel Choir and the Institute of Sacred Music alternating hymns pumped out over loudspeakers. Cardinals sat on red velvet chairs, dressed in either golden chasubles or purple robes. More than 500 priests in white surplice smocks accompanied by attendants holding yellow and white umbrellas fanned out into the square to give communion to as many of the 200,000 pilgrims who came for the occasion. Even the weather played a role, with partly cloudy skies casting bright beams of sunlight at opportune moments throughout the two-hour celebration, as if divine intervention caused the sun to shine a spotlight on the new pope. But for all the fanfare, there was one overriding message: Francis is not your average pope.
Already dubbed “the people’s pope,” Francis has set a surprising precedent in his papacy for being accessible, simple, and open. Even before his papal crowning on Tuesday, he had twice-defied his security detail’s better judgment by going on impromptu walkabouts at Roman churches to greet the people. The day after his election, he made his motorcade stop by the modest priests’ house where he had been staying before the conclave to pick up his bags and pay his bill. And on Tuesday, it was easy to see that the faithful, hungry for an all-access pope, love what they see so far. And as he glided through the crowds in an open jeep—stopping once to get out and kiss the head of a disabled man—he seemed much more like a rock star than the conservative leader of the world’s billion-strong Roman Catholic Church.
In just a few appearances since he was elected on March 13, he may have managed to put a far friendlier face forward than his predecessor Benedict XVI, who resigned from the papacy on February 28. But whether the hope and happiness of the moment will last is anyone’s guess. Francis may be friendly, but he’s not likely to be liberal. No one expects him to start handing out condoms in St. Peter’s Square or suddenly ordain women as priests. But there is palpable hope that he will do something to restore faith in his dying church, where membership has been on a steady decline for the last decade. “My faith is renewed already,” said 67-year-old Maria Grazia Ceccarelli, who had come to St. Peter’s Square at 6 a.m. to make sure she got a good seat for the inauguration. “I had lost my faith in recent years because of the troubles of the church, but Francis has already called me back. He is giving me hope.”
A hopeful pope is just what the church needs right now. Since Benedict’s election in 2005, there has been a disproportionate amount of bad news for Catholics. Scarred by the horrendous acts of predatory priests and embarrassed by allegations of sexual improprieties ranging from gay priest rings to seminary pedophile camps, Catholics need a dose of good news. Francis has already delivered that.
In his first few public addresses, he has promised to focus attention on the less fortunate, making “a poor church for the poor.” He even adopted the name Francis for St. Francis of Assisi, who famously gave up his family’s wealth to pray with the poor. Pope Francis has also returned to basic jargon, a departure from Benedict’s lofty prose. He is speaking to the people in a language they understand, which is an important asset since one of the most common complaints of Benedict’s reign was that he spoke above the heads of ordinary folks. So far, Francis has reintroduced the devil as the vehicle for evil, and he has managed to speak about complex themes in the most simplistic terms.
In his homily on Sunday, he garnered rapturous applause on several occasions, almost like a politician at a stump speech to party faithful. His message was clear, not coded. He spoke of being a protector of the weak, no doubt eyeing the dignitaries from 132 countries who had come to celebrate his inauguration. “Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political, and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.” No one was left wondering what he meant.
Francis will have a few more weeks of good news as he celebrates his first Holy Week beginning this weekend with Palm Sunday and ending on Easter—which is traditionally a high point for the church anyway as millions of pilgrims descend on Rome to celebrate one of Catholicism’s most important holidays. The first real test of his papacy will come later, when he chooses his Curia cohorts, essentially the cabinet of cardinals and high ranking prelates who will run the Vatican for him. At the top of the papal agenda is likely reviewing a two-volume investigatory report Benedict commissioned last year and received shortly before retiring, which is believed to outline the church’s financial corruption scandals and salacious sex crimes. If Francis uses that as a roadmap to set a new agenda for the church and clean house by appointing reformers, no doubt he will be able to turn the hope he has created into something tangible for the future of the church. If he doesn’t, then the honeymoon will soon be over.