In one of the galleries of the Vatican, there are a series of stunning 17th century maps covering the whole world then known in Rome. They are an appropriate decoration for the Dicastery for Relations with States, Vaticanspeak for Foreign Office, MFA or State Department. But they obviously show some errors or lacunæ due to the then state of knowledge so in one of the rooms leading off the gallery a modern map was painted in the 1950s. The shapes of the continents are perfect and the names all in Latin (or Graeco-Latin). The capital of Bolivia becomes Paxia and of Chile Sancti Iacopoli. Even Canada’s Algonquin capital is Latinised to Octavia. But the most curious name for a place of diplomacy is the one found on the bottom left of the Atlantic Ocean “Insulæ falklandiæ”. I wonder if the next time I visit it will have become “malvinæ”.
Facetiousness apart, Cardinal Bergoglio did say that the Falklands/Malvinas had been “usurped” in a speech last year but the issue is hardly at the top of his papal priorities.
In the few days that he has been pope, he has confused many, endeared himself to most (believers and non-believers, clerical and anti-clerical) and probably frightened a few (in the Curia and maybe some comfy clerics).
So far, obviously, he has actually changed very little of substance but he has already made enormous changes in the form of the papacy. Starting with himself – he is the first non-European (since the 8th C), the first South American, the first Jesuit and first to call himself Francis. A part of the Church heirarchy changed just by electing him and he rose to the occasion, from what we have seen so far, just by being himself.
In his first homily, he refused the red stole embroidered in gold; he shocked everyone by going back to his hotel to pay the bill and went around without the papal escort. Seventy years ago it was the “vento del nord” the north wind of antifascist partisans that changed Roman politics, today the breeze from the other side of the Tiber is setting an example for politicians already struggling with Beppe Grillo’s tsunami. The new speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, went to the Quirinale yesterday for an official visit to President Napolitano; she walked and was without an escort. No doubt she would have done it anyway but she was certainly comforted by the Pope’s example. The concepts of “poverty” and “service” are part of the rhetoric on both sides of the river – if Jorge Mario Bergoglio can change his side, it will have an inevitable effect on the Italian side.
He wears the same worn black shoes that he wore as cardinal refusing the crimson papal slippers that were the satirists’ delight with Benedict XVI and he wears an iron crucifix rather than the golden papal one.
Some of his traits are reminiscent of Angelo Roncalli, John XXIII including his physical features (even if Roncalli was shorter and plumper). John XXIII once described Vatican rituals as worthy of a “Persian satrap”. Roncalli had an easy manner with everyone – his smile was disarming and so is Bergoglio’s. Francis presents himself as the simple and ingenuous priest when he is actually complicated, contradictory and it would seem, very much on the ball.
At Saturday’s meeting with the 5,000 journalist covering the conclave he was relaxed and outgoing, joking gently with them “you’ve worked a bit, haven’t you?” and then in stark contrast to his predecessor whose bugbear was “relativism”, his word for agnosticism, Francis blessed the journalists “in silence because some of you are of different faith and some have no faith”, the first time, I think, that a pope has acknowledged atheists in a non-hostile manner.
On the issues, for the moment, he has concentrated on poverty, admitting that this is a political issue – it could hardly be otherwise. He has worked all his priestly life to alleviate poverty, supported striking workers but at the same time criticised the liberation theology which his south American brethren did so much to develop and propagate. There are aspects which appeal to the left but he is far from being a left-wing pope which also should not surprise us. There is still some doubt about what he did under the Videla regime in the 70’s; there are some accusations that he reported two Jesuits to the authorities who then arrested and tortured them and counterclaims that he actually saved them. Now that he is pope the real story will appear through the fog.
There are conflicting accounts of what he did last week when he met Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of covering up pedophile scandals in Boston; he may or may not have told him to withdraw from his position in St. Mary Major.
On what is legal for the rest of the world, we can hardly expect any change; no to legal abortion, no to gay sex between consenting adults (and probably straight sex between unmarried consenting adults), no to married priests. Cardinal Bergoglio was a conservative, Pope Francis is not going to change in 4 days nor in 400 and probably not in 4,000.
But he will certainly work to reclaim Latin America from the evangelical Christians and secularisation and has already begun the job just by being elected.
The biggest question mark is on how he will deal with the Vatican’s administration – its banking and the Curia. This is a civil service that has had 1,500 years of experience (actually more like 2,500 as they are the heirs of the Roman Empire and Republican administration). They make Sir Humphrey Appleby look like a parvenu and many a would-be reforming pope has ended up being able to do little or nothing or being consumed by curial politics like Francis’s predecessor.
Vatican legend has it that John Paul I was removed by a spiked tisane – Il Fatto Quotidiano’s satirical supplement yesterday listed Francis’s positive features and concluded that the tisane had already been brewed. Whether it’s an infusion or just political poison, Francis will need all his own political skills to do what he wants to do.