Pope Francis: Is the people's pontiff a revolutionary? (+video)
Pope Francis 'gets' the vast Roman Catholic middle – and that, alone, may be revolutionary for a pontiff. He may delight the world by veering from Vatican script on such issues as gay marriage, abortion and contraception, but will he change the ancient church?
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And yet he has also said that the church cannot remain obsessed over "culture war" issues of the day. It is clear that he is trying to appeal to the Catholic middle, those repelled by the impunity of scandal in the church, from pedophilia to money laundering, and tired of a church they say is always saying, "No." But whether he is able – or willing – to usher in major reform remains an open question.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Pope Francis: a unique pontiff
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"I feel very much that this is [like] the perestroika of Gorbachev," says Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican observer in Rome. "There is a complete change of atmosphere. There is a revolution under way. The only question is, how will it end? And will his papacy last long enough to see it through?"
No record of reform
Pope Francis was no great reformer in his 40-year rise through leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, a fact that elicits criticism even today. He was a social conservative who stayed out of the spotlight and lived simply from his earliest positions in the church.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, Bergoglio was the first child of Italian immigrants and grew up like many middle-class Argentine boys, collecting stamps, playing the card game brisca with his parents, and dancing the milonga. At age 13, he started to work in a hosiery factory, and after high school became a chemical technician.
He decided to become a priest at 17 and entered seminary four years later – a decision his mother didn't accept for years, he told biographers Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. But he soared as a capable leader, from provincial supervisor in his 30s to becoming archbishop of Argentina and later cardinal.
His career in Argentina is not without controversy, particularly because of the church's role during the country's Dirty War.
But social justice was at the core of Pope Francis's faith, insists Argentine parish priest Father José Maria "Pepe" di Paola, who was assigned by Pope Francis to work in the Buenos Aires slums in 1997. The priest says that the future pope, who took phone calls at any time of the night, has never been "a prince of the church.... In Argentina, he is seen as the pope of the slums" who put the welfare of the poor first. That connection to the poor seems evident, notes Gianfranco Carranza, a high school student from the largest Buenos Aires slum, Villa 21-24. When the teen traveled to the Vatican in April with 43 other youths to receive their First Communion from Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, he was surprised when the pope said to him: "You're the boy from Villa 21-24."
"I couldn't believe he recognized me," says young Gianfranco.
A man of rattletrap cars and plain cassocks
The pope's choice of the name Francis – from St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century patron saint of animals and ecology venerated by Catholics for his humility and simplicity – might have been a sign of continuity for his Argentine admirers. But the name's implicit rejection of church ostentation was a surprise to many appreciative Catholics around the world, like Croatian Vlado Viskovic, who came to Assisi Oct. 4 during the pope's visit to his namesake's tomb.
Mr. Viskovic sat for a long time in the pews of San Damiano, the simple, dimly lit church with fresco walls that St. Francis rebuilt in 1205. "I wanted my son to come here, to this place that Francis built with his hands," said Viskovic, who named that son Franjo, after St. Francis.
"It's the most beautiful church I have ever seen," said Franjo, now 19.
The two traced the pope's footsteps all day in the town that overlooks the rolling hills of Umbria, dotted with olive groves and cypress trees. "He is a pope for the people, for the jailed, for the modest, all people. He is a pope for us," said Viskovic.