By Stephen Marche
It began when the Pope paid his bill. The day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named the leader of the world’s billion Catholics, he asked his driver to go back to the hotel in the Vatican where he’d been staying during the Congress of Cardinals, to pay his bill. The payment was completely symbolic of course. That hotel belongs to the Church, and the Church belongs to him. The Pope paid “because he was concerned about giving a good example of what priests and bishops should do.” Paying a bill is a small but vital gesture — it is the most ordinary way that normal people fulfill their obligations. It was the first in a series of moves that have established Pope Francis I as, by far, the coolest, most interesting and potentially revolutionary Pope in memory.
It has now been a little over a hundred days since Francis took over the Vatican. He famously declared on his first day “The Carnival is over,” by which he meant that he wanted the Church to abandon its luxurious ways. But for Pope-watchers the carnival has just begun. There is serious upheaval in the Vatican, with outsiders brought into major positions of power, and Francis speaking openly of “a current of corruption” in the Curia, but, as an atheist, I don’t really care about any of that. I’m sure it takes guts and brains to try and reform the Church, but whether the Vatican is a strong or a weak institution is of the smallest possible concern to me. What is much more important is how he has used many small gestures to demonstrate the possibilities of compassion.
He has said that he believes priests should be “shepherds with the smell of the sheep” and he is living that way. He has, pointedly, not moved into the papal apartments, remaining at a cheap hotel where reportedly he eats breakfast with ordinary people. He refuses to take the papal limousine, traveling by minibus instead. More significantly, on Good Friday this year, Pope Francis became the first Pope in history to wash the feet of a woman. Not only did he wash the feet of a woman, but that woman was a Muslim. Not only was she a Muslim woman, she was a female inmate at a local prison. He has become famous in Rome as the “chatty” Pope, stopping to embrace children with disabilities. Recently after a kid with Down’s syndrome pointed to the Popemobile, Francis gave him a free ride around Saint Peter’s Square. He has a sense of humor, too. He’s been known to give blessings to groups of Harley Davidson bikers.