Monday, March 18, 2013

In the Vatican, The Pope of Chaos

Notice something different there? 

(Hint: No Cufflink.)

Normally, a detail of the sort would would be seen as frivolous. In the modern papacy, though, symbolism is substance – and in these first days of a new "Franciscan Rule," so it seems, the world is eating up every last bit.

On another dress-note, meanwhile, much as the new Pope's sticking with his black shoes has caused a stir, his reluctance to change too much extends under the white cassock, to boot: the Argentine pontiff's preferences don't just make his move to keep wearing black pants visible through the garment, but likewise highlight the untucked tails of his white dress-shirt. 

In other words, the lack of fuss isn't just a show for the world. But having declined the Archbishop's Residence in Buenos Aires for a flat where he did his own cooking, and riding around the city on buses and subways without an entourage, that was fairly well-established.

All of four days into his new ministry, Papa Bergoglio's style has already spurred significant tweaks to three pillars of the traditional apparatus surrounding the papacy: the liturgical shop (e.g. Guido Marini, now all in linen – something that, in times past, the Tradition-minded lead MC didn't even do on Good Friday), the press operation (given the Pope's penchant to veer into long stretches off-script, requiring immediate transcription and translation)... and perhaps the most formidable fiefdom of all, the security services.

Much as the latter clash was fairly clear from the get-go, it's already begun to build, most recently as the pontiff veered into the crowd following yesterday's morning Mass at Santa Anna (fullvideo) – Vatican City's "parish church" – going to those who couldn't be inside only after greeting each member of the congregation individually at the foot of the steps outside. Ergo, as Curialists of every stripe tend to do, the guards have taken their case to the ultimate sounding board of life behind the walls: the Italian press.

In Monday's La Stampa, the vaticanista-in-chief Andrea Tornielli reported that the papal security force – a combined effort of the Swiss Guard and the Vatican Gendarmeria (police) – were "seeking to adjust to the new style," but an unnamed member of the troop said that should Francis' habits not "normalize" after his first days, "it will make everybody crazy."

Another instance of the Pope's desire to remain "unbubbled" came Saturday morning. As he exited the Domus Sancta Marthae – the "Conclave Hotel" where he's still saying – for the audience with the press who covered the transition, Tornielli wrote that Francis "found the car and another escort vehicle" waiting to take him the block or so to the event site at the Paul VI Hall.

"The Pope looked at the policemen, smiled, and made an eloquent gesture with his hand, as if to say: 'Did you really think I'd take a car to go 100 meters?'" 

As he wished, he walked. Yet even this only hints at the moral of the story. 

Extraordinary as the response to his sincerity and simplicity has been over these days – a feeling running far beyond Rome and Argentina – Jorge Bergoglio's success at defining himself as himself on the world stage has come thanks to a less visible, yet equally key trait of the 266th Pope: his steely sense of determination. If he lacked it, he never could've proceeded or been received as he has in such a short stretch of time... and to be sure, its early quiet flashes are merely shaping up as a sneak preview of the battle of wills which is almost certain to define his pontificate.

As things pick up steam, a lesson from the Pope's past bears recalling: on ending his term as provincial of Argentina, then-Fr Bergoglio's intensity of conviction and grit served to divide his confreres so severely that he was made to leave the country until things could simmer down.

Then again, perhaps even that bodes well. Given the thick sea he'd inherit, the times called for a strong figure to don the white – someone strong enough to keep his black pants and set the trappings at arm's length if he so chose. Yet most of all, in an office where practically every temptation and modern custom could quickly undermine the intent behind it, only a fool would ever have taken the name Francis... 

...that is, unless he was driven to clear the high bar that comes with it.

PHOTOS: L'Osservatore Romano