Robert Mickens: From Benedict to Francis


February 25, 2014

A Rome-based correspondent for the international Catholic news weekly, The Tablet, Robert Mickens is a longtime Vatican observer. He says that although Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a brilliant theologian, he never should have been a bishop, let alone the pope. “Benedict XVI is a professor,” Mickens told FRONTLINE. “[Pope] Francis is a pastor.” This is an edited transcript drawn from two interviews conducted on Oct. 10, 2013 and Jan. 19, 2014.

[How big a deal was the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI?]

The resignation I think would be more than anything that Joseph Ratzinger has done in his life as a theologian — and he’s written lots of books, and he’s influenced lots of theology in the church as a Vatican official. He was one of the most important for more than 25 years. More than anything that he’s done, he will be remembered for the resignation. …

What was the state of the church that he bequeathed?

When he resigned, Benedict XVI left a church that was almost run into the ground. Some brighter people and more astute people on the workings of the church had confided in me, even people on the inside, he was killing the church. People were moving away from the church; people were leaving the church in droves.

What he did in his seven years as pope or so, is he brought back into the mainstream many fringe groups on the extreme right, groups that did not like or threw into question the reforms that happened at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The modernization of the church these people did not like. They wanted to go back to the old Tridentine Mass, the pre-Vatican II Mass, and he allowed them. These people were brought back into the mainstream of the church, even though they’re tiny little pockets, insignificant pockets really, [and] they became the tail wagging the dog.

This was driving away a lot of people, even inside the Vatican. The Vatican is naturally a conservative place. … Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, was too conservative even for them.

What sort of Vatican did he leave? …

One of the things that became very apparent after his resignation, even before the resignation, was that things were broken inside the Vatican, what they call the Roman Curia, the central bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. …

It’s like a fiefdom. There are still remnants of a 17th-century papal court that is run on favors and nepotism in a non-blood-related way, but favoritism, cronyism.

There was a sense that Benedict XVI was trying to reform that, but he wasn’t very successful at it. I think part of that was because he really is not a reformer; he’s a preservationist. … So what we had, and what we still have today, is a very dysfunctional bureaucracy, a very antiquated and anachronistic bureaucracy inside the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. …

So he left a mess?

There was a mess that Benedict XVI left, and I think that it was very clear when the cardinals gathered together to elect his successor, in those meetings before the conclave actually took place, that there was a need for someone who would come and put Peter’s house in order. “Peter’s house” is a phrase that John Paul II always used, because popes, of course, are a successor of St. Peter. …

And the first reform, and I think what was foremost in the minds of the cardinals who elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Buenos Aires, was to put his own house in order. …

Let’s talk about Benedict a bit more. You’ve met him. Can you characterize him for me?

I’ve met Pope Benedict on several occasions in my work as a journalist. …

He’s a shy man. He’s a very kind man. I would describe him as kind of the quintessential old-fashioned European Catholic who feels the weight of the history, the centuries of history in Europe of Catholicism. And I think he’s always felt an obligation to preserve the best of that. …

He does not like, never liked conflict. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons he left a very prestigious teaching position at the University of Tübingen in Germany when he was a young priest, professor, was because of the conflict. He was contested by students; he was contested by fellow faculty members, like Father Hans Küng, who’s kind of depicted as the anti-pope by people who don’t like him. Küng liked to have it out, and let’s fight our ideas out together, and Ratzinger shrank from that and eventually left. He did not want to work there. He wanted a serene place. He likes things serene.

Someone said to me that when he became pope, he was alone, that even though he’d always been in the Vatican he sort of locked himself away. He wasn’t very good at running the Vatican, was he?

I’ve often described his pontificate as the cloistered pontificate. He really did not relish being with people. … Pope Benedict never ate with anybody except his private secretaries and the people in his household, a few of the women who do the cooking and cleaning in the papal apartments. He would go on papal journeys and often take his meals alone or just with his secretary.

Now, you would think that a pope who’s going to visit local churches around the world would use the opportunity of a meal to sit down with other bishops, priests, religious, laypeople to share a meal, to converse with them. He never did that. He’s not comfortable with that.

How did he spend his days?

Benedict XVI liked to spend his days, I believe, reading and writing. Writing is very important for him. One of the things [was] that he unfortunately used the papacy to promote his own theology, and I think that this was unfortunate, because a pope is elected to be an administrator. Part of being a bishop is being an administrator. …

When he became pope, what did Benedict say about child abuse?

One of the things people have to understand is that no one, not Benedict XVI, not John Paul II, not Francis, none of these popes have got in front of the issue. They’ve been dragged to it on child abuse, on sex abuse committed by priests. They’ve always been responding to criticisms; they’ve always had to come late to the game and try to clean up a mess. They’ve never gotten out in front of it.

“No one, not Benedict XVI, not John Paul II, not Francis, none of these popes have got in front of the issue. They’ve been dragged to it on child abuse, on sex abuse committed by priests.”

Benedict XVI was the same way. I mean, here is a man who was in charge of the Vatican’s office that was dealing with these cases ever since I think 2001, when they finally all ended up on his desk. He’s talked about how poring over these documents, reading over these documents on every Friday, these were what he called his Friday penance or his Via Croce, the Way of the Cross. … Reading these cases must have been horrific.

One of the things that always struck me as odd was the first reaction that Benedict XVI had toward child abuse, at least the first public reaction, and this happened with the case of the Irish bishops when that big scandal hit, the statement came out, and the pope’s first reaction was he was horrified that a priest could do something like this.

That’s interesting. He wasn’t horrified that a kid was abused. … Why is it horrifying that a priest could do something like that? A priest can do all kinds of things, but it gives a light into the man’s mind that … that was the most horrifying thing for him. …

He knew about the [Marcial] Maciel case. It was going across his desk before he became pope, and he stalled. What was going on?

People say that the case of Maciel was really stalled in Cardinal Ratzinger’s office because his hands were tied, that other forces within the Vatican — the secretary of state [Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone], Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano and others who were friendly and in the pay of Maciel and the Legionaries of Christ, his order — blocked any kind of action from the office that Cardinal Ratzinger was in charge of.

But once he becomes pope, he finds a kind of middle solution to deal with Maciel. In 2005, after he was elected pope, at this point he has got enough evidence. Look, there were former Legionaries who were writing to him way back in the 1990s about this. He cannot claim that he didn’t know. He didn’t choose to believe.

Once he did believe and once he’s pope, then the question becomes, how do you deal with this man? He did not banish him. He did not kick him out of the priesthood as other priests were kicked out. What he did was he ordered him — “invited him” was the language that was used in the Vatican communiqué — invited him to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance. Didn’t give any reason why, but it was clear that they believed the accusations against him, which had been piling up since the 1950s and ’60s, [involving] not just child abuse but drug abuse as well, financial abuse.

Why didn’t he just banish him? Why? Because the Legionaries of Christ is a large and very wealthy order and puts lots of money in the Vatican’s coffers. I think Benedict XVI thought that he could save the order by getting rid of Maciel.

When Maciel dies in 2008, they open up an investigation, and they thought that this would lead to a renewal and a reform of the order, preserving the order. But how you can you preserve an order that was founded on the cult of personality of a psychopath? It doesn’t make sense. … If the Legionaries of Christ were a small, kind of poor order with few people, that’s exactly what they would have done. …

The church is meant to be the highest moral authority in the world. This speaks of shocking hypocrisy. The guy was a monster, and he was sent off to some holiday resort to think about it. What were they thinking?

The Maciel case is probably one of the darkest chapters in the history of the contemporary church, without a doubt, without a doubt. I still cannot get my head around this idea that his order can somehow be salvaged and reformed.

The people that were formed in that order, in secrecy they took a vow — fortunately, Pope Benedict made them rescind this vow — but for decades they took a special vow to never speak ill of the founder. … There were still members of the order who go to his tomb in Mexico and celebrate Mass and celebrate him. They were supposed to have taken down all photos of him in their houses in the 22 countries around the world where they’re present, and there are still houses that reportedly have been slow to take down these photos of Maciel. …

What should have happened was the order should have been disbanded; the members of that order should have been given psychological, spiritual help to discern whether or not they wanted to continue to be priests and find places that could accommodate them, either in dioceses to become diocesan priests or other religious orders. Why this has not been done — the only way I can explain it is it’s too wealthy, it has too much money, it runs a lot of schools, and they’re just afraid to shut this thing down.

Moving on, as we move through Benedict’s career, chaos is mounting, discontent with Bertone. Four cardinals go to have lunch with him in Castel Gandolfo. Tell me the story.

At a certain point in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, it becomes very clear that his biggest liability, if you will, is his secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone. Cardinal Bertone, who is just acting like a vice pope really, he’s traveling around the world, speaking all the time, saying things, doing things that were upsetting people who thought that he was doing a disservice to the pope. …

So a group of cardinals — Christoph Schönborn was one; there were a couple of Italian cardinals, I think a German cardinal as well — they went to the pope out at the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, had lunch with him, and they tried to impress upon him the importance or the necessity of just sacking, firing Bertone, replacing him with somebody else.

The pope got very angry, and evidently he said, “Der Mann bleibt hier! Basta!” The man stays, enough, mixing German and Italian. That was the word that came out, and they were all shocked. He didn’t want to hear anything more about it. …

That lunch is a sign of what, mounting discontent? Just sum up its significance.

There was a sense, I think, in the upper echelon among the cardinals and some of the people close to Benedict XVI, like Cardinal Schönborn from Vienna, who was a pupil of his, a protégé in a sense, there was real concern that this pontiff was going off the rails, and something needed to be done to salvage it, to right it again.

The first thing I think that these men believed needed to be done was to get rid of the secretary of state, Cardinal Bertone, because Bertone was highly criticized, and they thought if you replace Bertone, you would show that you’re willing to listen to criticism of your pontificate without having to give up any of your goals or ideals. … Benedict refused to do that.

Why did VatiLeaks matter?

VatiLeaks is one of the most embarrassing aspects of the last five years, certainly in the pontificate. I mean, it’s a blight on the papacy or the pontificate of Benedict XVI. …

Documents were spilling out showing that there was cronyism inside the Vatican, that there were sexual parties going on, even things concerning people who worked in Vatican offices, people who were papal gentlemen who were involved with male choristers in choirs inside St. Peter’s Basilica. We had contracts that were being inflated and given to friends of influential monsignors and bishops inside the Vatican. …

I mean, you’re talking about the pope, who had built his reputation on being a hard-liner on Catholic morality. He’s the one who wrote the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuality. And here we see, at least according to the documents that are coming out, that we have corruption to the hilt in Vatican City. …

As these leaks happened, what were your contacts telling you about the atmosphere in the Vatican and who was doing it?

… My contacts inside, talking to them, they said, “This is a nightmare.” I mean, it was, you know, when is this thing going to stop? That was the one thing. It was just gloomy.

And there was also a great atmosphere of fear, but the fear preceded the VatiLeaks, because there was already a sense that there was some kind of witch-hunt. Among the gay clergy, gay officials in the Vatican, most of whom are closeted, but I think there was among them great fear, because they didn’t know where this was going to stop, what the purpose of these leaks were.

And who did people think was doing the leaking? …

I remember at the time that people believed that there were certain officials inside the Secretariat of State that were helping in the leaking of documents. Because you have to understand what happened was Benedict XVI put a man in charge of the Secretariat of State who came from a different culture. The Secretariat of State is staffed by people who are professionally very carefully trained papal diplomats. They go to an elite training school called the Pontificia [Accademia] Ecclesiastica, and they spend three years there in a very rigorous and very meticulous program to prepare them to be the best diplomats in the world, papal diplomats. Really, the Holy See invented diplomacy.

And what did they do? They brought in somebody who had no clue of their culture, who was not part of their system — Bertone, a Salesian of Don Bosco — to come in and be the secretary of state. There was a revolt immediately among the people — a silent revolt, because they’re there working at the service of the pope.

So VatiLeaks is seen at the time as an attack on Bertone but also Benedict?

At the beginning, VatiLeaks was an attack against Bertone. I believe what happened was that when they saw that the pope would not budge, that he would not be pressured into getting rid of Bertone, then they turned on Benedict. They ratcheted it up to embarrass the pope, and that was the real goal. …

What happened next?

… I was at the man’s trial. … Nobody that I have spoken to and that I continue to speak to in the Vatican really believe that the butler did it. He was a scapegoat. He was a scapegoat, and he was probably pressured either by blackmail, that they held something over his head, or convinced him, paid him something.

But he took the fall for other people. He may have helped, but he certainly was not working alone, if he was involved at all. He was certainly not working alone. It’s impossible. There were documents that were leaked, that he supposedly leaked, that were written in languages that he does not speak. How would he even know that they were important? …

Did it do a lot of damage to Benedict?

At the end of the day, the whole VatiLeaks affair really just cast a pall on his papacy, on his pontificate. There were so many gaffes; there were so many false starts; there were so many hiccups and bumps and controversy in this pontificate. He was really kind of the hapless pope, but the VatiLeaks thing just kind of put a seal on it. … People inside the Vatican were saying, “This is a disaster.”

Moving back a bit in time, the bank. 2008, 2009, we have this amazing situation that the Italian police, at the behest of the international authorities, start eavesdropping on Vatican transactions. How can it be that a church has a bank which is associated with money laundering, criminality and possibly the financing of terrorist organizations through embassies? How could that situation develop?

One of the things about the so-called Vatican Bank is that it’s always been an offshore. It has kind of operated without any outside regulation. One of the things it does [is] it mints coins, and this is one of these kind of prestigious things. You know, you have these papal coins, so you have the face of the pope on it, and the Vatican used to have its money tied to Italy, which was the lira, before they went to the euro. So they had working cooperation to mint these coins and to regulate their financial situation through the Italians.

The Italians never demanded anything of them, because a lot of Italians — we know this now — politicians, businessmen were using the Vatican Bank as an offshore to hide their money, to money-launder, if you will, or not pay taxes. That was really the bigger thing.

What happens [is] at a certain point the European Union revisits the agreement and says …, “If you’re going to continue to mint euro coins, you have to sign up to these agreements.” …

Once the Vatican then decides that “OK, we are going to comply because we want to mint our coins, and if the condition is that we have to sign up to these anti-money-laundering protocols, etc.,” said, “we’ll do that, we’ll do that.”

“He was really kind of the hapless pope, but the VatiLeaks thing just kind of put a seal on it. … People inside the Vatican were saying, ‘This is a disaster.'”

There were some cardinals who thought: “Maybe it will be better if we just stop minting the coins. Then we don’t have to comply with these regulations. We can continue to run our own affairs as a sovereign entity. We’re not tied to the euro or to the EU in any way, shape or form.” But they decided in the end that they wanted to continue to mint these coins, so they had to comply with these regulations.

At that point what they had tried to do was do the minimum, OK. This is a very typical Italian — don’t say too much. It’s a very typical church thing as well: OK, give them only what they specifically ask for and nothing more.

What happened was they tried to say, “Fine, we will comply with this beginning now, beginning today. But the stuff from the past, you have no right to look at that.” Well, there was a big discussion inside the Vatican again over this, and Cardinal Bertone was adamant. “No, we will only allow them to look at what we’re doing from this day forward, nothing from the past.”

Others in the Vatican, Cardinal [Attilio] Nicora I think, one of the people, I think [former head of the Vatican Bank Ettore] Gotti Tedeschi as well, told Bertone, “No, you can’t do that; they have to be able to look at what we’ve been doing.” And that’s led, they say, to the firing of Gotti Tedeschi.

Why was Tedeschi sacked?

It’s not clear exactly why Gotti Tedeschi was sacked, except for the fact that I think the Vatican’s compliance with these regulations to an extent that others in the Vatican thought was too far.

After he was fired, the Bank of Italy instructed major banks to stop trading [with] the Vatican, and they cut the ATM machine off. What signal does the fact the ATM machines are cut off send to the world about the Catholic Church?

It may sound kind of crazy, but the ATM machines get cut off because the Vatican Bank is not trustworthy in the international financial world. You go to the Vatican museums, you want to buy your grandmother one of those nice parchment papers with the Last Supper or something, and you try to use your credit card, and they say, “Sorry, we can’t accept you credit card.” I mean, this was the situation. Then once the news gets out, I mean, this is terribly embarrassing. …

So at the end of the whole Vatican Bank saga, where does this leave Benedict?

It’s interesting. Benedict XVI, he continued to stay with Bertone and even reappointed him to head the commission for the Vatican Bank, even as he knew he was going to resign. And that’s a five-year appointment, so he kind of saddles his successor, whoever he would be, with this man that nobody likes. I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense.

I want to talk about sexual hypocrisy, which was shown somewhat in VatiLeaks. … Others we’ve spoken to say there’s a silent assent to priests having gay relationships, because it’s too difficult to deal with, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture was invented inside the Vatican, or let’s say it’s a great model of it, OK? One of the principles everybody knows is as long as you’re discreet, no one cares what you’re doing. But once you get into trouble, you’re on your own. …

From people you’ve spoken to, how do they reconcile the hypocrisy of having gay relationships and then standing in the pulpit telling their congregations to do something different?

I don’t know how people can reconcile this. Anytime you live a double life, most people, it tears you apart I think. And I think that people who are honest have to make a decision.

I mean, I don’t want to villainize everybody in the Vatican, because there’s a lot of gay men in the Vatican who are very good people, who are celibate, who are not having sex, who are struggling to be good priests, to be good officials, to do their job well, to be compassionate men. …

But the culture itself mitigates against that. It’s difficult to be good in the Vatican, because it is a hypocritical kind of culture. Benedict XVI, Francis, even John Paul II talked often about how Vatican officials are called to be holy, not to be clerical, not to be careerists, but unfortunately [it’s] this insular world which is a self-promoting system. It’s who you know or who you blow, as they say. This is how you make it inside the Vatican. And unfortunately, there’s a sense of unreality inside there.

The other thing is, too, I think for Americans and Brits who might have an idea the priesthood is service in a parish, etc., the classic Italian mentality, for people who work inside the Vatican anyway, is that this is a 9-to-5 job. It’s like working in a ministry, OK, or in the State Department, in a government office. You go to work, I’m a priest, but I work in this job from 9:00 to 5:00 and then the rest of my life, the rest of the day is mine. I think too many people inside the Vatican continue to have that kind of mentality.

You’re aware of all this because you’re in Rome, the Vatican. What’s an ordinary Catholic sitting in a church in Boston or London meant to make of this?

I think most people, most Catholics around the world don’t want to believe that the Vatican is as it is. I came here when I was a seminarian in 1986, and I remember I had this very wide-eyed idea of the Vatican, of these holy cardinals and holy men. I was shocked within a matter of weeks, months, at the careerism, at the sexual innuendo — just the whole kind of non-holy life that I’d [not] expected. I think that unless you spend some time inside this kind of culture, it’s very hard to believe that it could be like this.

Are you still a Catholic?

I’m still a Catholic, and I’ve had to become a Catholic again on my own terms in some ways. But my faith is in Jesus Christ and in the communion of saints, the fellowship of believers. My belief is not in the pope; my belief is not in the Vatican.

The Vatican is a very important part of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s not the church, and I think people forget this very often. Unfortunately, I think this is a real problem as well, that we say, “Oh, now we’ve got a wonderful pope; we love this pope.” Well, that’s not changed anything in the church.

And by the way, there are a lot of really great priests who have been feeding the poor for a very long time, and sisters and laypeople. Pope Francis didn’t invent that. It’s great that he’s emphasizing it, but sometimes I know we make too much of the papacy, and we turn it into kind of an idol, what I call “papolatry,” so the church is bigger than the papacy. …

What we’ve been told is three cardinals were asked by Benedict to investigate VatiLeaks. They quickly found the butler, but then asked to carry on investigating some of the issues thrown on. On Sept. 17 they presented the dossier to Ratzinger, and shortly afterward he resigns.

Basically, what happened was Benedict XVI formed a commission of three elderly cardinals, … and they were to look into this whole culture inside the Vatican? What is at the heart of the VatiLeaks? What’s underneath all this? What’s going on inside the Vatican?

What they did is they interviewed people, and then they took down, they recorded it, and then they transcribed it, and then they brought the people back in to check to see if the transcription is right. They had a chance to correct it if they didn’t. And they compiled 300-and-some pages of this stuff, talking to Vatican officials.

“The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture was invented inside the Vatican.”

It’s not real clear what’s in these pages, but the sense that everybody had was it must be some really evil stuff going on in there and that this is really nasty stuff, and it’s so nasty that they’ve never published it because it’s too embarrassing to publish this stuff.

There’s another theory that they didn’t uncover anything really, and that’s why they don’t publish it. It would be more embarrassing to have done an investigation and done all this work to find out that this is just real petty stuff.

Whatever the case, the dossier lands on Pope Benedict’s desk, and he doesn’t say anything about it. We’re told that some broad lines of it were discussed at the pre-conclave meetings to elect Pope Francis, but they’ve never released any of the details of this.

Why did Benedict resign? Do you remember where you were when you heard the news and your reaction to it?

… I remember. I thought, this is unbelievable, because I thought, what will happen now? And people forget this, because we’ve got so much water under the bridge now, and we’ve got this new pope that’s so very different, but from the point when he announced his resignation until the conclave and the evening that Francis walked out on the porch there, the central balcony of the basilica, there was still a fear that somehow, by resigning, Benedict XVI was plotting a way or at least ensuring a way to have continuity with his pontificate.

We’ve never had a resigned pope before in our lifetime, I mean in hundreds of years. We know that the cardinals are kind of — they are the pope’s men, and they’re only free when a pope is dead, and then they are really free to do what they want. Otherwise, they take these vows of fidelity to the man who made them cardinal.

So the thinking among many of us, and even people inside the Vatican, a lot of my contacts, was that this is going to ensure a carbon copy; the pope’s men will be elected. How could they turn their backs on Benedict — he’ll still be alive — and elect somebody not of his choosing?

Do you accept Benedict’s given reason for resigning? Why do you think he resigned?

I think Benedict XVI is sincere when he says he no longer had the energy and the stamina to continue, the vigor. I think he looks great, you know, nine months after the resignation. He certainly looks a lot better than he did the day he resigned, but I think there was a heavy psychological weight on the man.

I think Benedict XVI did what he always did. When the fight got too tough, he just kind of threw in the towel. He couldn’t do any more. That’s what he did when he left the University of Tübingen. He will not stand and fight. The stakes were probably too high. He liked a serene life. …

What was the final straw? You’ve never had any insight from anyone? Everyone was equally surprised?

… When Benedict announced his resignation, people were shocked. Popes don’t resign. “Jesus did not come down from the cross”; that’s what John Paul II said as he hung on for dear life, embarrassingly so for some, as a great witness for others. But John Paul said: “Jesus did not come down from the cross. I cannot resign.” And we have a pope that resigned. He seemed much healthier than John Paul II was.

But you think he threw in the towel?

I think he threw in the towel, and probably for good reason. I think that there were too many obstacles, too much opposition to him, and he is not the kind of man that would stand and fight.

It’s very likely that there was more embarrassing stuff that they were threatening to expose, of whatever nature I do not know, but he just said: “Enough, enough. Let’s not put the rest of the church through all this anymore.” And he resigned. …

The conclave — what was the mood as they gathered, a sense of crisis?

When the cardinals gathered in Rome, I think the first thing on their mind was we need — and they talked to us about this — there needs to be major reform. The Vatican needs to be reformed. This was the albatross. I mean, this was the big problem. …

And they decided on — why Francis, an outsider?

The cardinals who have spoken as transparently as they’re allowed to, because of the rules of the secrecy that govern the conclave, have said that one of the things that really made an impression on them was a talk that Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, gave during the pre-conclave meetings. They meet beforehand to discuss issues, and he was very, very clear. He said the church has got to get out from looking inward and go out of itself.

One of the phrases that he used, and he eventually allowed one of the cardinals to publish, … is: “Christ is knocking on the door, but sometimes he’s knocking to get out, not to come in. We always interpret that Christ is knocking on the door from the Scriptures. Open the door to Christ. Yes, open the door to Christ so he can get out.” And that made a huge impression I think on a number of the cardinals, and they thought, yes, we are too self-absorbed. Here’s a man who’s got courage, he’s older —

And he’s not tainted by the Vatican.

Francis is the first pope since Pius X in 1903 — he was elected in 1903 till 1914 — he’s the first pope not to ever have studied in Rome, worked in Rome or spent significant time in Rome. He’s an outsider. He’s also the first religious-order pope since the 1800s.

A new broom.

This guy had a reputation for being hard-nosed. He’s conservative, so he’s trustworthy, so they figured that this is a guy that can put the house in order. …

[Describe the moment that Francis addressed the crowd shortly after he was selected as pope.]

When the name Franciscus or Francis came out and, all of a sudden, here comes Cardinal Bergoglio out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, I was very struck, because at first there was no smile. He came out, and he just kind of surveyed the crowd very quietly. We were all stunned, because we really didn’t know what kind of pope this man was going to be.

But then he began by saying, “Buonasera” — just “Good evening.” That was it. I mean, such a normal thing to say, such a common thing to say. He did not say “Laudetur Iesus Christus” or something very formal in Latin. He did not come waving his hands in victory above his self as his predecessor had done. He just seemed very serene.

“The words that he said just on that first evening on the balcony just brought a lightness of step, a new hope to a lot of people.”

And he looked down. He went up to the rail of this balcony, and he looked down over the square. And then he said that the cardinals have chosen somebody from the ends of the earth, or “the ends of the world,” is what he said. He called himself the bishop of Rome, and he said a few things: “We’ll walk together, people and bishop, bishop and people.” I mean, these are all kinds of metaphors and images that come from the Second Vatican Council.

And he said, “I’ll give you my blessing, but before the bishop blesses the people, the bishop asks for a blessing from –” He said, “I want you to pray over me.” …

You could have heard a pin drop, and there were people crying in the square with joy. I mean, it was just unbelievable. I think people — today, with some distance from that moment and we’ve processed it now, and we’ve seen how he has acted as pope, “bishop of Rome” — have said this was a surprise from God.

I’ve heard people say that it’s renewed their faith and trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church. … Many people had given up. With the election of Bergoglio and the words that he said just on that first evening on the balcony just brought a lightness of step, a new hope to a lot of people.

A lot of highly symbolic things happened — his first apostolic visit was to Lampedusa; he’s now got a tatty car; he rejected the gold crucifixes.

Right from the very beginning he made some very definitive, very clear and symbolic decisions and took some symbolic actions.

First of all, when he went to the balcony after being announced as pope, he refused to wear all that stuff, what they call the mozzetta and the heavy — he took a white cassock. They had a whole array of what they call pectoral crosses, the cross that he wears around his neck. They had a whole array from which he could have chosen. He said, “No, I want to use my own.” It’s a silver pewter thing that probably cost about 5 euros on a side street around St. Peter’s Basilica. … He wore his own ring, which is just a silver ring. Before he blessed the people in the square, he put [on] what they call a stole — it’s a kind of solid thing that the priest wears when he celebrates Mass — he put it on to give the blessing; then he took it off right away. He just doesn’t want to wear all this “stuff,” you know. He’s very, very simple. …

I think the most important decision he made early on in his pontificate, within days, and it’s not just symbolic but it’s absolutely programmatic, he decided he would not live inside the papal apartment, inside the Apostolic Palace. He was going to stay in the Santa Marta residence, which people call a guesthouse. … “I live here,” he said. “I want to be near people.” …

He’s free by living in Santa Marta, and I think that was the most important action that he took right from the onset. He’s kind of done a runaround of the Roman Curia. He’s not engaging them too much. He’s just doing his own thing. …

You also talked to me, and very vividly, about the difference between Francis’ whole approach and personality to that of his predecessor.

The personalities of the two popes I think could not be more different. First of all, you have Benedict XVI. … Joseph Ratzinger should never, ever have been a bishop. He just didn’t have the gifts, the charism. His gifts were different. He’s a theologian; he’s a catechist. … He didn’t have the administrative skills, and being a bishop — episkopos — means administrating.

Francis has lots of administrative experience, first of all, beginning when he was 36 years old, when he was the provincial; that is the regional head of all the Jesuits in Argentina. Now, he has said that he was too young for that job, that that was foisted on him at an age that he thought was too young and he had too little experience. He’s admitted to having made mistakes, but he’s also said that he believes he’s learned from those mistakes.

He becomes an auxiliary bishop, kind of an assistant bishop in Buenos Aires in 1992 I believe, and fulfilled that role for a few years, learning what a bishop does.

But all along in his life as a priest he’s been in an administrative role, whether as a Jesuit superior, the head of a household. He’s also done some teaching. He was a teacher of the novitiates, people coming into the Jesuit order. So he’s had to be responsible for other people in a pastoral role.

Then he becomes archbishop of Buenos Aires, and from what we know of that period, he shunned the great ceremonies and spent a lot of time out among the people, lived on his own. Benedict XVI is a professor; Francis is a pastor. Couldn’t be more different.

I think what happened as well, once Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected bishop of Rome, he felt this new mission, and he was transformed by this. All the people in Argentina, my colleagues and others that I’ve spoken with, say he’s a different person. He never smiled so much; he was never so gregarious, never so outgoing. This new charism that he obviously has is something that has come with the office and in a kind of a mysterious way. …

There are a lot of people digging around in Argentina itself. Is there anything you’d like to say about that?

… A real minefield in the life of this pope, because it’s such a big issue in the Catholic Church, and it’s not gone away, even though they’re singing hosannas to him right now, [is] the sexual abuse of minors, clergy sex abuse, and what did he do when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The evidence shows, up till now, that he didn’t do much. As a matter of fact, it seems that he refused to answer letters from victims [and that he] refused to meet with some victims, or alleged victims. He may have his reasons for that, and he may have also done things very quietly with people not to gain the spotlight. …

It’s the same thing with the dirty war in Argentina. He was accused of not protecting people, and then, lo and behold, out come a number of people [who] say, “No, no, no, he did; he helped me get documents, masquerade me as a priest so I could get out of the country, save my life.”

Did he do this with victims? We don’t know; I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem very promising with the information that we have right now. And this could be a very, very ugly mark on his pontificate.

This issue is not over. I know a lot of bishops and a lot of Catholics would like it to be over, but it’s not. We’re seeing new cases all the time all over the world. We haven’t even begun to deal with what’s happened in Latin America. Asia, where there’s a child sex trade, I’ve got to believe that there’s a lot of stuff there, too, that we have not yet begun to deal with.

If the pope doesn’t come out and set very clear, transparent and public guidelines and make statements, I think this could cripple him. To his defense, it may be that it’s not a topic that he wanted to bring up in the first three days in the job or the first six months, but he’s going to have to deal with it. And it could be a very, very pernicious field for him to navigate. …

It seems to me that Pope Francis has stepped in, and probably not a minute too late, to a church that really was in crisis. Am I taking that too far? …

Pope Francis comes on the scene at a time when the church is in a deep crisis. …

It was very clear — one of the images, you might remember, the image that he used in the interview that he gave to the Jesuit, the church is like a field hospital after a battle. … If you read the interview carefully, he’s talking about people who are wounded within the church. He recognized it as he became pope, that there are a lot of wounded people. He had to have.

He came from a large archdiocese where people had been walking away for decades because of what’s perceived to have been an obsession with rules, obsession with the moral strictures, a desire to turn back the clock. This is what the faithful of the church, so many [of them], perceive, and can they all be wrong? We’ve lost a lot of people in the church. …

The crisis consists of many elements. It’s a structural crisis, first of all. The papacy has been exercised for the last 200 years at least as an absolute monarchy, certainly in the last 200 years, at a time when monarchies have been abolished and have just fallen under their own weight. The governing structure of the church is, in the 21st century, an anachronism. …

The pope knows this, so what does he do? He forms a group of cardinals from all over the world, from different parts of the world to help advise him on how to govern the universal church and reform the Vatican bureaucracy. Whether these are just the foundational blocks for a real transformation, a structural transformation of the way power or authority is wielded within the church we don’t yet know. …

The other crisis is there is a crisis of faith in the world without a doubt, but the church [needs] to become credible again, and I think that he’s gone a long way just in his first months as pope to give a new credibility to the institution. …

What Pope Francis raised I thought was quite interesting — or somebody said this to me — that it wasn’t so much the corruption he found shocking, but it was the blackmail structure.

… One of the things in the Vatican — people, career, Vatican officials — you’re very careful what you say about people, always very nice, but you keep your information to yourself. You store it up in your heart as Blessed Mary did. She’d store all these things, stored all these things in her heart, and you keep information on other people — I know about him; he knows about me — it’s kind of a checkmate until something happens.

I’ll give you an example. The priest that Pope Francis appointed to be the delegate of the Vatican Bank, his name’s Battista — Monsignor Battista Ricca, He appoints this man to this post, and within days there are some people that go to the pope and say, “Do you know that there’s scandal from when he was working at the Vatican’s embassy, the nunciature in Uruguay?” It had this kind of homosexual thing about it, and he had a boyfriend and this and that, and it just got more and more fantastic. … They used this to block his career, and they thought that the pope would back down.

Well, the pope was too shrewd, because he knew — this is one of his first appointments, early on in his pontificate. If he backs down now, they’ve got him in a corner; he’ll back down on everything. “No,” he said, “I’m standing by him. I looked at this; he may have made indiscretions in the past, but you allow people to grow and see how they amended.”

So this kind of information to use against other people to block careers and to further others’ is really very much part of the game and life inside the Roman Curia. …

Francis himself, you’ve said the knives were out for him. Whose knives and why?

… Some people are very perturbed at the style of this pope, this pontificate. It’s not what they expected. This is not the way popes are supposed to act. Popes are not supposed to give freewheeling interviews to secular newspapers. Popes are not supposed to call people up on the telephone. Popes are not supposed to write letters to Catholic gay organizations in Italy and give them his blessing. … Popes are not supposed to say, “Who am I to judge?,” as Pope Francis did on his plane when asked about gay people. …

This is stuff that really disconcerts people who look to the church for black-and-white answers, for a guideline that’s crystal clear, that’s as solid as a rock, that cannot be changed. …

“Francis knows that life is not black-and-white; he knows people struggle; he knows people have doubts.”

A real shepherd has got to be among the sheep, so you’re going to smell the sheep. And a real bishop, according to Pope Francis, has to be among his people and has to have the sense and the smell of his people.

Francis knows that life is not black-and-white; he knows people struggle; he knows people have doubts. And he said in interviews: “I don’t trust people who have all the answers. And I don’t have all the answers.” Wow. …

I think that many of the cardinals thought his main preoccupation would be just to clean up the Vatican Bank, the Roman Curia, the Vatican offices, the communications mess, all that stuff. Instead, what he’s done is he’s engaged the world in a way I don’t think they ever expected. And he’s saying things in enigmatic ways that have captivated people who have normally been extremely critical of the church.

So how can they object? What’s the problem?

There are many people who think that he’s ambiguous and that he is not preaching the Vatican doctrine as clearly as he should be.

They’re not really clear, because he’s turned everything up on its head. The first and greatest reform was his decision not to move inside the Papal Palace. And what this has done, it’s turned everything on its head. They can’t control him. And he has been somebody, he’s so comfortable in his own skin, he’s not afraid to just do his own thing.

He’s respectful of others, but he’s not controlled, and popes are usually controlled by their secretaries and the other groups of people inside the Vatican who are able to mold and shape. He can do certain things, but they usually run the show. They’re not running the show.

And it’s all a big question mark, and this has alarmed a lot of people. Think of it this way: No one likes change, no matter who we are. And even a pope that comes in and they say, “Wow, this man is fantastic,” etc., but he has not shown clearly how he wants to change the church, and so people are nervous. Everyone hopes that the change is going to be, in a way, favorable to him or her — not many hers in the Vatican — but they’re not sure.

The bank, even reforming the Curia, that’s easy stuff. What has he done about child abuse?

I think one of the major gaps, one of the missing links in this new pontificate of Pope Francis is that he’s said absolutely nothing about clergy sex abuse, nothing. He’s said nothing publicly. He may have said things to bishops and cardinals and religious behind closed doors in private, but he has not made one statement on his own in public about child sex abuse.

He did accede to a request by his Council of Cardinals, his eight cardinals. He did honor their suggestion to set up a commission on child protection at the Vatican. But this was something suggested to him; this is not something —

Does this matter?

I think this matters greatly, because it is eventually an issue that he’s going to have to deal with. I can understand that he probably did not want to begin his pontificate in a negative and look at something different, something bigger and more important. But when Pope Francis talks about the marginalized people on the periphery, people who are suffering, the poor, there’s no one poorer, more marginalized or more suffering than someone who’s been abused by a minister of his own or her own church that that person believed in, because [that person is] not only robbed of innocence but robbed of one’s faith.

And he hasn’t met them?

Pope Francis has never met any of these victims, never talked about the victims. Eventually he’s going to have to do this, or else this is going to be a very serious threat to how his pontificate moves forward.

We talked about this hypocrisy at the heart of the church. Can he do anything about that? Is he doing anything about that?

I think the pope’s biggest challenge right now is he’s changing the mood and the ethos and giving confidence back to the church. There are major issues in the church. The issue of women in the church: They’re more than half the people that are involved in the Catholic Church, and yet they really have no kind of ownership of the church. That has to change.

The pope has opened up this possibility, but the challenges that lie before him are challenges that he does not believe that he must answer all by himself, but he must answer with the bishops. This I think this is going to be the big reform, and this is the reform that he’s aiming at, is to reform the governing structure of the church.

One little man and a little postage-size state in the middle of a tiny country should not be making all these decisions by himself. I think that’s what he really believes, because it’s not part of the deeper tradition of the church. The bishops govern the church together. And Pope Francis has already begun to reform the Synod of Bishops which was set up in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, but it’s only been a rubber-stamp body up till now. What he wants it to do is to be the normal way for the church leaders, for the bishops to discuss together how to go forward. …

What’s the biggest danger he faces?

… The strength of this pope will be the people, and the people who continue to push him. …

His biggest danger is that there are a lot of small-minded bishops that were appointed under Benedict XVI and John Paul II and a whole cadre of clergy that were ordained in the last 10 years on some idea of priesthood in church, so very different from the one that Francis is putting forward, who will find it hard to be enthusiastic and to follow and to pick up his message and to diffuse it among the people.

So many people have nailed their colors to the stakes; for example, the anti-abortion — a particular type of Catholicism.

The cultural-warrior image that you have largely of the American hierarchy, many of the American bishops and a lot of the younger American priests, this is not something that you would associate with the style of Pope Francis.

Not that Pope Francis is in favor of gay marriage, not that Pope Francis is in favor of abortion — he’s not in favor of any of that, and he’s not going to change that. If anything, he wants to change the way the church deals with these issues, not as a screed, not as a scold, but as a way of dialoguing with the world.

He’s talked often about making the message of the Gospel and making the church attractive, reaching out to people, listening to people, dialoguing with people. If we can show the medicine of mercy and love, and the ability and willingness to walk with people, even when we disagree with them — which is what I think Pope Francis is trying to do — I think he believes that that gives us a better chance as a church to interest people in the message that we’re preaching rather than scolding them all the time.

Jason M. Breslow

Jason M. Breslow, Former Digital Editor



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