Amid Vatican Disarray, Pope Francis Set A New Tone

February 25, 2014
by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013 (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

One year ago this week, Pope Benedict XVI did something that no other pope had done in nearly 600 years — he resigned the papacy.

It was a decision that sent shockwaves through the Vatican. Just eight years earlier, Benedict had promised a new beginning for the church at a time when it was reeling from the clergy sexual abuse crisis. But rather than stem the scandal, the crisis only grew.

Troubles spread to a second front in 2010 with allegations of money laundering at the Vatican bank. Then came VatiLeaks, a scandal that exposed a Vatican hierarchy plagued by cronyism, power struggles and bureaucratic corruption. For Benedict, it was a crippling blow to his authority.

Five weeks after Benedict’s resignation, white smoke from the Sistine Chapel signaled that the College of Cardinals had chosen his successor: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known today as Pope Francis.

Among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, it was clear Francis was inheriting a church in disarray, yet on the night of his selection he seemed to signal a new direction with just two words: buona serra or “good evening.”

“That was amazing,” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said in the below excerpt from tonight’s FRONTLINE investigation, Secrets of the Vatican. “You can’t imagine the response of that huge crowd that was in St. Peter’s Square, because they expected a theological message, and they found somebody that is warm, that is near, that is one of us.”

Tonight’s film traces the shocking back story of how Benedict’s papacy collapsed and the extraordinary challenges ahead for Francis as he looks to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, stem corruption in the Holy See, and chart a new course for the church.

It appears big changes may be on the horizon. In April, Francis appointed eight influential cardinals to advise him on how to reform the structural problems facing church governance, and just yesterday he announced a sweeping set of reforms for the Vatican’s scandal-plagued financial system.

On broader matters of church teaching, he has shifted focus from divisive social issues such as homosexuality — famously asking “Who am I to judge?” in response to a question about gays in the church — and placed an emphasis on what he calls a global “economy of exclusion and inequality.”

The challenge ahead for Francis may be meeting the high expectations that have been set for him. As Barbie Latza Nadeau of The Daily Beast told FRONTLINE:

“One has to worry and wonder if he’s ever going to be able to live up to the legacy that he has already created. He’s already the best pope that anyone can remember.”

Secrets of the Vatican premieres tonight on most PBS stations — at a special time, 9 pm. You can check your local listings here.

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