Scenes From a Young Papacy What kind of a pope is Francis? Charismatic, enigmatic, mysterious—it’s complicated.


It is the big Wednesday general audience of the pope in St. Peter’s Square. Forty thousand people or more are here, pilgrims and tourists spilling through the square past the fountain, some holding flags, still more holding umbrellas against what is already, at 10 a.m., a punishing Roman sun. Papal chamberlains in white tie and tails; rows of bishops, cardinals and abbots; the Swiss Guard in their yellow, red and blue uniforms, halberds held sternly in white-gloved hands—the church, as always, knows how to put on a show.

When Francis comes out there are cheers, calls of “Papa!” and applause. John Paul II at the end, in his illness, looked different from his pictures, and Benedict XVI seemed taller and sweeter than what you’d seen, but Francis is exactly the Francis you anticipated, the big smiling man in eyeglasses and white cassock.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

He is driven in an open jeep through the crowd, and you can tell where he is from the direction of the roar.

The reading is from the Gospel of St. Mark. A priest, Father Roger Landry, offered spontaneous translation for our row, and soon other rows were leaning in. “My little girl is at the point of death,” a man told Christ, who went to her and said, “Little girl, I say to you, arise,” and she rose and walked. Francis began his commentary with a merry “bongiorno,” which pleased the crowd, and then spoke on sickness, which he characterized as an “experience of fragility” that can come as “a real shock”: “In so many places the hospital is a privilege for the few” and the family is “the closest hospital.” He spoke of the “hidden heroism” of those who care for the sick, reminded them they are not alone, that they are accompanied by “kisses of God,” and asked all to “pray unceasingly” for the ill and their caretakers.

It was not like one of John Paul’s weekly audiences. Those were raucous affairs—the crowds sang and even danced; they cheered and rocked the hall with their chants. With Francis it is all surprisingly subdued, warm but bracing. As a cardinal told me, when Francis says mass it’s in Italian, not Latin; it is prayerful, but no time is wasted—“no frills. And he doesn’t sing.”

You sense he’s trying to conserve his energy.

What you find among the churchmen of Rome is what a mystery Francis still is after two years of his papacy. To put it less dramatically, they’re still getting to know him and pondering different aspects of his nature, some of which seem contradictory. They love his charisma and respect and appreciate his popularity. He has a gift for intimacy but few intimate friends. He is “a complicated figure,” according to a priest who knows him.

Though ideological categories don’t fully apply, Francis’s political vision is usually described as more or less of the left, assuming a faith in the power of the state to help and protect the people. On piety and the great moral issues the modern church faces each day, he is a traditionalist, though a largely unheard one because the media do not find that part of the picture interesting.

He moves forward in the world wearing a big smile while observing, of the parable of the good Shepard who will leave 99 of his sheep to save just one, that now it is 99 of the sheep who are lost.

No one claims to know exactly how Francis thinks, or even who his closest advisers are. He is said to keep his thinking and his plans largely to himself. An observer said, of his discretion, “The left hand doesn’t know what right hand is doing.” He is, famously and toward the world, the pope of the open embrace, but he is not convivial like John Paul, who made it a point to fill his lunch and dinner tables with thinkers and old friends. Francis is happy to eat alone or with a few regulars. He is somewhat austere. He is, like John Paul, a great showman, but he is not seen, as John Paul was, as a great intellect.

When he speaks on theological things—the meaning of the gospel, the mission of the church—he is universally known to be drawing from a deep theological well of study, contemplation and experience. When he talks about politics it’s more like he is probing a tooth that hurts. When he pops off, and he likes to pop off, he causes the church he loves discomfort.

Most recently it was his jocular comment that just because you’re faithful to church teaching on contraceptives doesn’t mean you have to breed “like rabbits.” That went over big with the more or less secular but not with the more or less Catholic. It wounded parents of big families, who are criticized more than enough by the world and would hope at least for respect from the church whose teachings they love and obey. One cardinal called it a disaster. But something came of it. A mother of a large brood wrote to Francis to tell him: “I have many children and I want you to know I wasn’t the rabbit—it was my husband.” The pope roared.

It is often said of Pope Francis that he has the power of immediate empathy, that when you are talking to him, as they often say of gifted American politicians, you feel like you are the only person in the room. I asked a priest if that meant Francis had the talents of a modern politician. No, he said, and here is why: “This is not an attempt to manipulate for selfish or self furthering gains. He is acting spontaneously to show you how the love of Christ feels. When he hugs the diseased man, that is to show Christ’s love. When he stops to hug the little boy who is sick, it is Christ’s love.” Francis, he said, “is depicting the joy of Christian feeling.”

About the encyclical on the environment, due next week, one gets the impression from church leaders that global-warming skeptics will not be pleased. They are quick to say the other side won’t fully love it either. The pope will note at length the previous environmental writings of John Paul and Benedict, the latter actually known for a time as “the green pope.” The Vatican feels the science of climate change is settled. It wants to be in the conversation, it wants to speak on an issue that has great meaning for the young, and as a cardinal said, “The church got it wrong with Galileo and it doesn’t want to get it wrong again.” Also the European elite is all in on climate change and the Vatican is in Europe. The Church fears being tagged as antiscience and antifact.

But is the science of climate change settled? And can a church that made a mistake with Galileo 400 years ago make another mistake by trying desperately not to repeat the earlier one?