This story appears in the August 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.
When about 7,000 awed strangers first encounter him on the public stage, he is not yet the pope—but like a chrysalis stirring, something astounding is already present in the man. Inside Stadium Luna Park, in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians have gathered for an ecumenical event. From the stage, a pastor calls out for the city’s archbishop to come up and say a few words. The audience reacts with surprise, because the man striding to the front had been sitting in the back all this time, for hours, like no one of any importance. Though a cardinal, he is not wearing the traditional pectoral cross around his neck, just a black clerical shirt and a blazer, looking like the simple priest he was decades ago. He is gaunt and elderly with a somber countenance, and at this moment nine years ago it is hard to imagine such an unassuming, funereal Argentine being known one day, in every corner of the world, as a figure of radiance and charisma.
He speaks—quietly at first, though with steady nerves—in his native tongue, Spanish. He has no notes. The archbishop makes no mention of the days when he regarded the evangelical movement in the dismissive way many Latin American Catholic priests do, as an escuela de samba—an unserious happening akin to rehearsals at a samba school. Instead the most powerful Argentine in the Catholic Church, which asserts that it is the only true Christian church, says that no such distinctions matter to God. “How nice,” he says, “that brothers are united, that brothers pray together. How nice to see that nobody negotiates their history on the path of faith—that we are diverse but that we want to be, and are already beginning to be, a reconciled diversity.”
Hands outstretched, his face suddenly alive, and his voice quavering with passion, he calls out to God: “Father, we are divided. Unite us!”
Those who know the archbishop are astonished, since his implacable expression has earned him nicknames like “Mona Lisa” and “Carucha” (for his bulldog-like jowls). But what will also be remembered about that day occurs immediately after he stops talking. He drops slowly to his knees, onstage—a plea for the attendees to pray for him. After a startled pause, they do so, led by an evangelical minister. The image of the archbishop kneeling among men of lesser status, a posture of supplication at once meek and awesome, will make the front pages in Argentina.
Among the publications that carry the photograph is Cabildo, a journal considered the voice of the nation’s ultraconservative Catholics. Accompanying the story is a headline that features a jarring noun: apóstata. The cardinal as a traitor to his faith.
This is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.
Changing Seemingly Everything
“I really need to start making changes right now,” Francis told a half dozen Argentine friends one morning just two months after 115 cardinals in the Vatican conclave vaulted him from relative obscurity into the papacy. To many observers—some delighted, others discomfited—the new pope already had changed seemingly everything, seemingly overnight. He was the first Latin American pope, the first Jesuit pope, the first in more than a thousand years not to have been born in Europe, and the first to take the moniker Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor. Shortly after his election on March 13, 2013, the new leader of the Catholic Church materialized on a balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica all in white, without the traditional scarlet cape over his shoulders or gold-embroidered red stole around his neck. He greeted the roaring masses below with electrifying plainness: “Fratelli e sorelle, buona sera—Brothers and sisters, good evening.” And he closed with a request, what many Argentines already knew to be his signature line: “Pray for me.” When he departed, he walked past the limousine that awaited him and hopped into the bus ferrying the cardinals who had just made him their superior.
The next morning the pope paid his bill at the hotel where he had been staying. Forswearing the traditional papal apartments inside the Apostolic Palace, he elected to live in a two-bedroom dwelling in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican’s guesthouse. In his first meeting with the international press he declared his primary ambition: “How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor.” And instead of celebrating the evening Mass for Holy Thursday (commemorating the Last Supper) at a basilica and washing the feet of priests, as was traditional, he preached at a youth prison, where he washed the feet of a dozen inmates, including women and Muslims, a first for a pope. All this took place during his first month as bishop of Rome.
Still, the new pope’s Argentine friends understood what he meant by “changes.” Although even the smallest of his gestures carried considerable weight, the man they knew was not content to purvey symbols. He was a practical, streetwise porteño, as residents of the port city of Buenos Aires call themselves. He wanted the Catholic Church to make a lasting difference in people’s lives—to be, as he often put it, a hospital on a battlefield, taking in all who were wounded, regardless of which side they fought on. In the pursuit of this objective, he could be, according to Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine friend, “a very stubborn person.”
Bouncer to Pope
Though to the outside world Pope Francis seemed to have exploded out of the skies like a meteor shower, he was a well-known and occasionally controversial religious figure back home. The son of an accountant whose family had emigrated from the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, Bergoglio had distinguished himself from the moment he entered the seminary in 1956, at 20, having worked as a lab technician and briefly as a bouncer at a club. Soon after, he chose the intellectually demandingSociety of Jesus as his path to the priesthood. As a student at Colegio Máximo de San José in 1963, he possessed both “heightened spiritual discernment and political skills,” according to one of his professors, Father Juan Carlos Scannone, such that he quickly became a spiritual adviser to students and teachers alike. He taught unruly boys, washed the feet of prisoners, studied overseas. He became the rector of Colegio Máximo as well as a fixture in blighted shantytowns throughout Buenos Aires. And he rose in the Jesuit hierarchy even while navigating the murky politics of an era that saw the Catholic Church enter into fraught relationships first with Juan Perón and later with the military dictatorship. He fell out of favor with his Jesuit superiors, then was rescued from exile by an admiring cardinal and made bishop in 1992, archbishop in 1998, and cardinal in 2001.
Shy in disposition, Bergoglio—a self-described callejero, or street wanderer—preferred the company of the poor over the affluent. His own indulgences were few: literature, soccer, tango music, and gnocchi. For all his simplicity, this porteño was an urban animal, an acute social observer, and in his quiet way, a natural leader. He also knew how to seize a moment—whether in 2004, lashing out at corruption in a speech attended by the Argentine president, or at Luna Park in 2006, falling to his knees. As Father Carlos Accaputo, a close adviser since going to work for Bergoglio in 1992, says, “I think God has prepared him, throughout his entire pastoral ministry, for this moment.”
Moreover, his papacy was not a fluke. As the Roman author Massimo Franco would put it, “His election arose from a trauma”—from the sudden (and for nearly six centuries, unprecedented) resignation of the sitting pope, Benedict XVI, and from the mounting sentiment among more progressive cardinals that the hoary and Eurocentric mind-set of the Holy See was rotting the Catholic Church from within.
Sitting in the living room of his apartment that morning, the pope acknowledged to his old friends the daunting challenges that awaited him. Financial disarray in theInstitute for the Works of Religion (more crassly referred to as the Vatican bank). Bureaucratic avarice bedeviling the central administration, known as the Roman Curia. Continuing disclosures of pedophile priests insulated from justice by church officials. On these and other matters Francis intended to move swiftly, knowing that—as one friend who was there that morning, Pentecostal pastor and scholar Norberto Saracco, puts it—“he was going to make a lot of enemies. He’s not naive, OK?”
Saracco remembers expressing concern about the pope’s boldness. “Jorge, we know that you don’t wear a bulletproof vest,” he said. “There are many crazy people out there.”
Francis replied calmly, “The Lord has put me here. He’ll have to look out for me.” Though he had not asked to be pope, he said the moment his name was called out in the conclave, he felt a tremendous sense of peace. And despite the animosities he was likely to incur, he assured his friends, “I still feel the same peace.”
What the Vatican feels is another story.
An Unmanageable Pope
When Federico Wals, who had spent several years as Bergoglio’s press aide, traveled from Buenos Aires to Rome last year to see the pope, he first paid a visit to Father Federico Lombardi, the longtime Vatican communications official whose job essentially mirrors Wals’s old one, albeit on a much larger scale. “So, Father,” the Argentine asked, “how do you feel about my former boss?” Managing a smile, Lombardi replied, “Confused.”
Lombardi had served as the spokesman for Benedict, formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, a man of Germanic precision. After meeting with a world leader, the former pope would emerge and rattle off an incisive summation, Lombardi tells me, with palpable wistfulness: “It was incredible. Benedict was so clear. He would say, ‘We have spoken about these things, I agree with these points, I would argue against these other points, the objective of our next meeting will be this’—two minutes and I’m totally clear about what the contents were. With Francis—‘This is a wise man; he has had these interesting experiences.’”
Depicting the pope as a sort of superman, a star, is offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly, and has friends like everyone else.
Chuckling somewhat helplessly, Lombardi adds, “Diplomacy for Francis is not so much about strategy but instead, ‘I have met this person, we now have a personal relation, let us now do good for the people and for the church.’”
The pope’s spokesman elaborates on the Vatican’s new ethos while sitting in a small conference room in the Vatican Radio building, a stone’s throw from the Tiber River. Lombardi wears rumpled priest attire that matches his expression of weary bemusement. Just yesterday, he says, the pope hosted a gathering in Casa Santa Marta of 40 Jewish leaders—and the Vatican press office learned about it only after the fact. “No one knows all of what he’s doing,” Lombardi says. “His personal secretary doesn’t even know. I have to call around: One person knows one part of his schedule, someone else knows another part.”
The Vatican’s communications chief shrugs and observes, “This is the life.”
Life was altogether different under Benedict, a cerebral scholar who continued to write theological books during his eight years as pope, and under John Paul II, a theatrically trained performer and accomplished linguist whose papacy lasted almost 27 years. Both men were reliable keepers of papal orthodoxy. The spectacle of this new pope, with his plastic watch and bulky orthopedic shoes, taking his breakfast in the Vatican cafeteria, has required some getting used to. So has his sense of humor, which is distinctly informal. After being visited in Casa Santa Marta by an old friend, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, Francis insisted on accompanying his guest to the elevator.
“Why is this?” Celli asked. “So that you can be sure that I’m gone?”
Without missing a beat, the pope replied, “And so that I can be sure you don’t take anything with you.”
The Measure of the Man
In attempting to divine the 78-year-old pope’s comings and goings, the closest Vatican officials have to an intermediary has been Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’ssecretary of state, a much respected veteran diplomat—and, importantly, trusted by his boss, according to Wals, “because he’s not too ambitious, and the pope knows that. That’s a fundamental quality for the pope.” At the same time, Francis has drastically reduced the secretary of state’s powers, particularly with respect to the Vatican’s finances. “The problem with this,” Lombardi says, “is that the structure of the curia is no longer clear. The process is ongoing, and what will be at the end, no one knows. The secretary of state is not as centralized, and the pope has many relations that are directed by him alone, without any mediation.”
Valiantly accentuating the upside, the Vatican spokesman adds, “In a sense, this is positive, because in the past there were criticisms that someone had too much power over the pope. They cannot say this is the case now.”
Like many institutions, the Vatican is unreceptive to change and suspicious of those who would bring it. Since the 14th century, the Catholic epicenter has been a 110-acre, walled city-state within Rome. Vatican City has long been a magnet for tourists, thanks to the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as a pilgrimage destination for the planet’s 1.2 billion Catholics—which is to say that the world comes to it and never the other way around. But it is also just as its designation implies: a self-contained territorial entity, with its own municipal administrators, police force, courts, fire brigade, pharmacy, postal service, grocery store, newspaper, and cricket team. Its press corps, the Vaticanisti, monitors the institution’s vagaries with the gimlet-eyed skepticism of city hall reporters. Its entrenched workforce pays no sales taxes in Vatican City. Its diplomatic bureaucracy, in the familiar way of bureaucracies, rewards favored bishops with cushy postings while relegating the less favored to comparatively dismal sectors of the world. For centuries it has weathered conquests, plagues, famine, fascism, and scandals. The walls have held.
Now comes Francis, a man who despises walls and who once said to a friend as they strolled past the Casa Rosada, where Argentina’s president lives: “How can they know what the common people want when they build a fence around themselves?” He has sought to be what Franco, who has written a book on Francis and the Vatican, calls an “available pope—a contradiction in terms.” The very notion seems to have drained the blood from the Vatican’s opaque face.
“I believe we haven’t yet seen the real changes,” says Ramiro de la Serna, a Franciscan priest based in Buenos Aires who has known the pope for more than 30 years. “And I also believe we haven’t seen the real resistance yet either.”
Vatican officials are still taking their measure of the man. It is tempting for them to view the pope’s openhearted reactions as evidence that he is a creature of pure instinct. “Totally spontaneous,” Lombardi says of Francis’s much commented-on gestures during his trip to the Middle East—among them, his embrace of an imam, Omar Abboud, and a rabbi, his friend Skorka, after praying with them at the Western Wall. But in fact, Skorka says, “I discussed it with him before we left for the Holy Land—I told him, ‘This is my dream, to embrace beside the wall you and Omar.’”
That Francis agreed in advance to fulfill the rabbi’s wish makes the gesture no less sincere. Instead it suggests an awareness that his every act and syllable will be parsed for symbolic portent. Such prudence is thoroughly in keeping with the Jorge Bergoglio known by his Argentine friends, who scoff at the idea that he is guileless. They describe him as a “chess player,” one whose every day is “perfectly organized,” in which “each and every step has been thought out.” Bergoglio himself told the journalists Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin several years ago that he seldom heeded his impulses, since “the first answer that comes to me is usually wrong.”
Even in the seemingly drastic lifestyle changes Francis has brought, he has made commonsense concessions to the realities of the Vatican. He had suggested that hisSwiss Guards didn’t need to follow him everywhere, but he has since become resigned to their near-constant presence. (He often asks the guards to take his photograph with visitors—another concession, since Bergoglio long recoiled from cameras.) Though he has eschewed the bulletproof-glass-enclosed popemobile frequently used since the assassination attempt on John Paul II in 1981, he recognizes that he no longer can ride the subways and mingle in the ghettos, as he was famed for doing in Buenos Aires. This led him to lament, four months after he assumed the papacy, “You know how often I’ve wanted to go walking through the streets of Rome—because in Buenos Aires, I liked to go for a walk in the city. I really liked to do that. In this sense, I feel a little penned in.”
The perfect family doesn’t exist, nor is there a perfect husband or a perfect wife, and let’s not talk about the perfect mother-in-law! It’s just us sinners.
Friends say that as the head of the Vatican and an Argentine, he has felt duty bound to receive his country’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, even when it has been painfully evident to him that she has used these visits for her own political gain. “When Bergoglio received the president in a friendly way, it was out of pure grace,” says Buenos Aires evangelical pastor Juan Pablo Bongarrá. “She didn’t deserve it. But that’s how God loves us, with pure grace.”
To Wals, his former press aide, Bergoglio’s careful entry into the papacy is completely unsurprising. Indeed, it was foreshadowed by the manner in which he vacated his previous office. Realizing there was a chance the conclave would elect him—after all, he had been the runner-up to Ratzinger after John Paul II’s death in 2005—the archbishop left for Rome in March 2013, says Wals, “with all letters finished, the money in order, everything in perfect shape. And that night before he departed, he called just to go over all the office details with me, and also to give me advice about my future, like someone who knew that maybe he would be leaving for good.”
Leave for good though he did, and in spite of the serenity he exhibits, Francis has nonetheless approached his new responsibilities with gravity leavened by his characteristic self-deprecation. As he said last year to a former student, Argentine writer Jorge Milia, “I kept looking in Benedict’s library, but I couldn’t find a user’s manual. So I manage as best I can.”
Changing Religiosity Worldwide
He is, the media would have it, a reformer. A radical. A revolutionary. And he is also none of these things. His impact thus far is as impossible to miss as it is to measure. Francis has kindled a spiritual spark among not only Catholics but also other Christians, those of other faiths, and even nonbelievers. As Skorka says, “He is changing religiosity throughout the world.” The leader of the Catholic Church is widely seen as good news for an institution that for years prior to his arrival had known only bad news. “Two years ago,” says Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and a senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter, “if you asked anybody on the street, ‘What’s the Catholic Church for and against?’ you would’ve gotten, ‘It’s against gay marriage, against birth control’—all this stuff. Now if you ask people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, the pope—he’s the guy who loves the poor and doesn’t live in a palace.’ That’s an extraordinary achievement for such an old institution. I jokingly say that Harvard Business School could use him to teach rebranding. And politicians in Washington would kill for his approval rating.”
Of course, as is evident when speaking to Vatican officials, the spectacle of a papal personality cult—Francis as rock star—is unseemly to such a dignified institution. To some of them the pope’s popularity is also threatening. It reinforces the mandate he was given by the cardinals who desired a leader who would cast aside the church’s regal aloofness and expand its spiritual constituency. Recalls one, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, “Just before the conclave, when all the cardinals gathered, we shared our views. There was a certain mood: Let’s get a change. That kind of mood was strong inside. No one said, ‘No more Italians or no more Europeans’—but a desire for change was there.
“Cardinal Bergoglio was basically unknown to all those gathered there,” Turkson continues. “But then he gave a talk—it was kind of his own manifesto. He advised those of us gathered that we need to think about the church that goes out to the periphery—not just geographically but to the periphery of human existence. For him the Gospel invites us all to have that sort of sensitivity. That was his contribution. And it brought a sort of freshness to the exercise of pastoral care, a different experience of taking care of God’s people.”
Clues to Pope’s Intentions Tantalize
For those such as Turkson who wanted change, Francis has not disappointed. Within two years he had appointed 39 cardinals, 24 of whom came from outside of Europe. Before delivering a searing speech last December in which he ticked off the “diseases” afflicting the curia (among them, “vainglory,” “gossip,” and “worldly profit”), the pope tasked nine cardinals—all but two of them outsiders to the curia—with reforming the institution. Calling sexual abuse in the church a “sacrilegious cult,” he formed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors headed by Seán Patrick O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston. To bring transparency to the Vatican’s finances, the pope brought in a tough former rugby player, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and named him prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy—a designation that puts Pell on a par with the secretary of state. Amid these appointments, the pope paid a notable act of deference to the old guard: He kept in place Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Benedict’s hard-line appointee, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which enforces the church’s beliefs.
Such moves signify much—but it is hard to say what they will lead to. The early clues have been tantalizing to reformists as well as more traditional Catholics. Even as he accepted the resignation of a U.S. bishop who was the first to be convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse, Francis also appointed as bishop a Chilean priest alleged to have covered up the sexual abuses of another cleric, sparking protests at the bishop’s installation ceremony. Additionally, the preliminary Synod on the Family that Francis convened last October produced no sweeping doctrinal changes, which mollified conservative Catholics who had feared exactly that. But the actual synod this October could produce a different outcome. On the issue of lifting the ban on Communion for divorced Catholics whose marriages were not annulled, Scannone, the pope’s friend and former professor, says, “He told me, ‘I want to listen to everyone.’ He’s going to wait for the second synod, and he’ll listen to everyone, but he’s definitely open to a change.” Similarly, Saracco, the Pentecostal pastor, discussed with the pope the possibility of removing celibacy as a requirement for priests. “If he can survive the pressures of the church today and the results of the Synod on the Family in October,” he says, “I think after that he will be ready to talk about celibacy.” When I ask if the pope had told him this or if he was relying on intuition, Saracco smiles slyly and says, “It’s more than intuition.”
Then again, the pope’s words and gestures have become a Rorschach inkblot that his audience can interpret as it wishes. For a man of such simple words and habits, this seems ironic. But it is also not new.
Igniting a Revolution
In 2010, Yayo Grassi, a Washington, D.C.–based caterer, fired off an email to his former teacher, the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Grassi, who is gay, had read that his beloved mentor had condemned legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage. “You have been my guide, continuously moving my horizons—you have shaped the most progressive aspects of my worldview,” Grassi wrote. “And to hear this from you is so disappointing.”
The archbishop responded by email—though no doubt providing a handwritten draft in his tiny script to his secretary, as Pope Francis, then and now, has never been on the Internet, used a computer, or even owned a cell phone. (The Vatican press office prepares the tweets on his nine @Pontifex Twitter accounts—which have 20 million followers—and sends them, with the pope’s approval.) He began by saying that he had taken Grassi’s words to heart. The Catholic Church’s position on the subject of marriage was what it was. Still, it pained Bergoglio to know that he had upset his student. Grassi’s former maestrillo assured him that the media had badly misconstrued his position. Above all, said the future pope in his reply, in his pastoral work, there was no place for homophobia.
The exchange offers a glimpse into what one should, and should not, expect from his papacy. In the end, Bergoglio did not disavow his stance against gay marriage, which, as he wrote in one of those letters, he views as a threat to “the identity and survival of the family: father, mother, and children.” None of the dozens of friends I interviewed believed that Francis would reassess the church’s stance on this matter.
What renewed Grassi’s reverence for his former teacher is precisely what today rivets throngs in St. Peter’s Square and is sure to do so on his September visit to the United States: the blinding whiteness of his papal attire reimagined as an accessible simplicity. It is the porteño’s affinity for the street fused with the Jesuit’s belief in vigorous engagement with the community—el encuentro, the encounter, which involves both seeking out and listening, a decidedly more arduous undertaking than the impersonal laying down of edicts. For it requires the courage of humility. It is what prompted Bergoglio to drop to his knees and ask for the prayers of thousands of evangelical Christians. It is what caused his eyes to flood with tears when he visited a Buenos Aires shantytown where a man declared that he knew the archbishop was one of them because he’d seen him riding in the back of the bus. It is what compelled him, as pope, to refuse to have his hand kissed by an Albanian priest who had been imprisoned and tortured by his government—and instead to attempt to kiss the man’s hand, and then to weep openly in his arms. And it is what staggered millions two years ago when Pope Francis, in his emblematic rhetorical moment, uttered these simple and astonishing words, coming as a gentle query in response to a question about gay priests: “Who am I to judge?”
This would appear to be the pope’s mission: to ignite a revolution inside the Vatican and beyond its walls, without overturning a host of long-held precepts. “He won’t change doctrine,” insists de la Serna, his Argentine friend. “What he will do is return the church to its true doctrine—the one it has forgotten, the one that puts man back in the center. For too long, the church put sin in the center. By putting the suffering of man, and his relationship with God, back in the center, these harsh attitudes toward homosexuality, divorce, and other things will start to change.”
Then again, the man who told his friends that he needed “to start making changes right now” does not have time on his side. His comment this spring that his papacy might last only “four or five years” did not surprise his Argentine friends, who know that he would like to live out his final days back home. But the words were surely a comfort to hard-liners inside the Vatican who will do their best to slow-walk Francis’s efforts to reform the church and hope that his successor will be a less worthy adversary.
Still, this revolution, whether or not it succeeds, is unlike any other, if only for the relentless joy with which it is being waged. When the new archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Mario Poli, commented to Francis during a visit to Vatican City about how remarkable it was to see his once dour friend with an omnipresent smile, the pope considered those words carefully, as he always does.
Then Francis, no doubt smiling, said, “It’s very entertaining to be pope.”