VATICAN CITY – In his first year, Pope Francis has blown a breath of fresh air through the Catholic Church that has been felt across the globe.
Contrary to the way he is frequently depicted, the first pope from the southern hemisphere is no revolutionary in terms of doctrine.
However, there is no doubt that he has shaken up the way things are done at the head of the Church, triggering concern, reticence and even a degree of opposition within the Vatican establishment.
Elected exactly a year ago on Thursday, Francis quickly developed a rapport with the faithful far beyond the confines of the Holy See. Now 77, he has also appealed to many non-Catholics with his common touch, his grace and ease with ordinary people and his emphasis on the Church serving the interests of the world’s poor.
Partly as a result, the expectations vested in him have been huge.
Twelve months after he accepted his election with the words “I am a great sinner,” the Church has not been transformed, no rules have been abolished and the rituals at St. Peter’s continue to follow their timeless rhythm.
But in terms of style, a lot has changed.
Naturally spontaneous, Francis speaks easily, gives interviews and says what he thinks and, in turn, he is credited with encouraging a new spirit of open debate across the 1.2-billion-strong Church.
People like, and seem convinced by, his projection of the image of the pope as an ordinary man.
He has been described variously as a Marxist, pro-gay, a supporter of women priests and allowing the clergy to marry: none of them with any real basis.
A theme this pope returns to repeatedly is that of mercy, which has had profound implications for the way issues such as homosexuality, divorce and abortion are addressed, even if there has been no change in Church teaching on any of them.
Francis’s message seems to be, “avoid judging and condemning others.” He has been severe in his criticism of what he calls “armchair bishops” and careerism within the clergy, reminding priests that they should be close enough to their flocks to take on “the smell of their sheep.”
It is all a world away from that of his German predecessor, Benedict XVI, now cloistered in a monastery on the Vatican hill. The two men have a great mutual respect and are said to get on well, but they could not be further apart in their respective approaches to the job.
In the newspaper and souvenir kiosks of Vatican City, postcards bearing the shy and serious face of Benedict are now usually to be found hidden away behind those of his more dynamic successor.
Only the soon-to-be-canonized John Paul II can rival the current pope in the eyes of the faithful.
This popularity, combined with a certain curtness in his management style, has not won universal acclaim in the small world that is the Vatican.
“There are some who think that he has stripped the papacy of its aura, (that) this pope has become too accessible, too close to the people,” said Andrea Tornielli of the website Vatican Insider.
Traditionalists have criticized some of Francis’ interviews with mainstream newspapers in which he has seemed to cast doubt on some Church teachings.
His search for new ways of handling practical problems such as the treatment of believers who have divorced and remarried has accentuated his reputation for innovation, which has not pleased everyone.
The cardinals who massively backed Francis’ elevation gave him two mandates: reform the Church and its central government, and reinvigorate its missionary work at a time when much of the Western world is turning its back on Christianity.
He has started to accomplish the first of those mandates. The clergy have not been spared from criticism by a pope who has not shied away from tackling in-fighting and sidelining corrupt or incompetent figures.
He has started to restructure the governance of the Church and has asked private companies to audit its accounts and working methods.
His second mandate, a new evangelism, is closer to Francis’ heart and its success, he believes, depends on re-establishing traditional family structures as a means of ensuring that faith is transmitted to a new generation.
At the same time, Francis has also begun a consultation on issues of homosexuality, cohabitation outside of marriage and divorce, and how the Church should respond. For him it is a way of reconnecting with sections of society that had become estranged from the Church.
For many, Francis’ strength lies in the direct connection he appears to have with the ordinary people of a globalizing world seeking meaning in their lives.