Pope Francis: Fresh Face in the Vatican

Pope Francis: Fresh Face in the Vatican

My years of writing about religion and spirituality for San Francisco’s two daily newspapers roughly coincided with the reign of Pope John Paul II, which, from 1978-2005, was the second longest in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

People forget that popes didn’t used to leave the Vatican very often. John Paul, the globetrotting pontiff, changed all that. I racked up quite a few frequently flier miles following him around, and even got to fly on his plane once and ask him a few questions.

Like Ronald Reagan, who was president of the United States during the eight peak years of the pope’s reign, the Polish pope was a master at understanding how to use the news media—especially television—to spread the gospel he wanted to spread.

And like Reagan, the pope was a profoundly conservative man. So was his immediate successor, the German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a Benedict XVI, the former leader of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which used to be called the Office of the Holy Inquisition.

My last major assignment as the religion writer at the San Francisco Chronicle was covering the death of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican conclave that elected Ratzinger, and then Ratzinger’s appointment of San Francisco Archbishop William Levada to replace him to lead the Holy Inquisition.

By that time, I was ready to turn in my press pass, take a buyout from the imploding newspaper business, and start writing about things that had nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. I’d lost count of how many stories I’d written about the child sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church in San Francisco and then around the world.

Now, for the first time since I left the newspaper, I wish I were writing about the Catholic church again and the fresh wind that’s blowing through the stuffy corridors of the Vatican. I am talking, of course, about the new pontificate of a Jesuit priest from Argentina, Father Jorge Bergoglio, a.k.a. Pope Francis.

The pontificates of the popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were very much about rolling back the liberal church reforms of the Second Vatican Council, a Roman gathering of the world’s bishops from 1962-65 that redefined the church as the “people of God,” rather than the priestly class that ran the show in recent centuries.

Pope Francis seems to be bringing the church back to the people, especially the poor. He is shaking up the Vatican to such an extent that I think it might be wise for the new pope to be careful about who is preparing his meals.

When asked about the entrenched power brokers in the Vatican, Pope Francis says, “Heads of the church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”

This is a pope who, when asked about gay people, says, “Who am I to judge?”

When asked if heavy rains will mess up a big gathering of Catholic youth in Brazil, this pope says, “I expect a messy World Youth Day. I want things messy and stirred up in the congregations. I want you to take to the streets. I want the church to take to the streets.”

It almost seems like a miracle to hear the pope talking about “messing up” the church.

“The spirit blows everywhere—even inside the Vatican,” said Sara Miles, who runs a food pantry for the poor at St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco. “Francis is wise enough and crazy enough to actually believe that he is responding to something, rather than leading something.”

What do you think of the new pope?

Don Lattin writes about covering Pope John Paul II in his most recent book, a memoir and group biography titled Distilled Spirits. To learn more about his work, visit

The photograph of Pope Francis is courtesy of

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