VATICAN CITY — There's a joke going around St. Peter's Square: Next thing you know, to comply with his ecclesiastical vows of poverty, the pope is going to put the Vatican up for sale!
That day hasn't yet arrived, but the idea speaks as much to Pope Francis' unpredictability as to his now famous acts of humility and renunciation of worldly goods. Though few in Rome want to draw conclusions just six months after the election of this uncharacteristic pontiff, the first ever from Latin America, everybody agrees that there's a new feeling in the air. A sort of "Roman Spring," welcomed by many — even if it is hard to know what the long term effects might turn out to be.
"I notice a certain universal empathy toward Francis, a popularity without equal," admits French Cardinal Tauran, a veteran of several top jobs in the Roman Curia. "People come to me and say: We used to come to see John Paul II, to listen to Benedict II," he says. "Now we come to touch Francis."
The crowds during the weekly Wednesday general audiences seem to confirm this. The pope devotes more of his time in St. Peter's Square embracing and greeting the people than delivering erudite catechesis.
Without any spectacular reform, without changes in the Church's doctrine, the fact of the matter is that the pope's message and his insistent willingness to refocus the Church on the world's sufferings make him hard to criticize.
"Francis clearly set the Church back in motion: He gives believers the impression that they all have a role to play, that he won't let the Church go moribund and lose its importance," says Philippe Chenaux, historian at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
A Roman theologian is enthusiastic: "We are just coming out of a phase of depression, and all of a sudden this pope has put the Church back at the heart of the issues where it can help," the Catholic scholar says. "Being close to the poor, working for peace, understanding rather than judging, setting an example, engaging in conversation with the rest of the world ... And because he says it simply and actually embodies it, people can hear it!"
Officially, even the pope's insistence on criticizing the institution, to shake up the Roman Curia headquarters of the global Church, move the clergy, to denounce "the airport bishops, the sycophants, the careerists, the slanderers," is welcomed. "We accept everything from this pope because he doesn't mean to humiliate people but to make them better," Cardinal Tauran assures.
"It's not a nice feeling, but it encourages self-examination," adds a Curia prelate.
By being so outspoken, Francis would have "freed up speech" in Catholic circles — but only to a certain point, as several Roman sources asked not to be named. "It lifted some taboos. One notices a sort of liberation regarding complexes, prejudices, and rites that weighed down the Church," assures Jesus Colina, chairman of the Catholic news agency Aleteia. "By not going into some subjects, such as liturgy, ethical and moral issues, he normalizes them."
Francis has called on clerics to show more "creativity" and recognized the right to be wrong — both of which offer a glimpse of a freer, less controlled Church. On the other hand, that didn't prevent him from recently excommunicating an Australian priest who was in favor of gay marriage and the ordination of women priests.
As weeks go by, more and more people also say they were happy that somebody was finally in charge again. Despite his numerous consultations, the pope himself gave hints that he could make a decision, at the risk of appearing authoritative: Those ousted from the Vatican Bank are evidence of this.
Can it last?
After years of malfunction, due in part to Benedict XVI's managerial weakness, Francis' approach reassures part of the institution. Even the more moderate see in him "a credible pope that embodies once again a global moral authority." "With his outspokenness against military strikes in Syria, the Vatican has even made a notable comeback on the international stage," a European diplomat confirms.
But can the honeymoon period last? Can Francis continue to speak so much and shake up minds like he does without engendering resistance?
Some already foresee the limits of his mandate. Launching a reorganization of the Church's government will take months, if the first ideas mentioned in meetings are anything to go by. Others worry that the pope's words might be misunderstood, that they might cause disappointment or tensions.
"He talks a lot, writes little: There could be ambiguities in his formulations, which would leave room for interpretations, and that is dangerous," worries one senior Vatican official. Thus, his insistence to assure atheists that there is no "absolute truth" or that “each of us has a vision of good and of evil" might have destabilized believers and raised suspicions of "relativism."
"Benedict XVI used to do too much explaining, perhaps Francis doesn't do enough," ventures a theologist.
The fact that he pushes forward a somewhat more lenient moral theology, inherited from Jesuit casuistry, also raises concerns amongst some Conservative ranks that the pope is softening on doctrine. Many observers find these fears unjustified and reckon instead that Francis "hasn't let go of anything." The day after he released the text in which he asked of Catholics not to "talk all the time" about moral issues, he restated his strong opposition to abortion.
Some find irritating the "excessively positive" reactions to his speeches. Indeed, the excitement in some circles on Francis' stance on the status of divorced and remarried Catholics belittles the fact that Benedict XVI used to say the same. "The staging is different but the script hasn't changed," another expert sums up.
The pope and those around him are supported unreservedly by the Church's progressives, and his views on the role of women and secularists, on marriage for priests and on ethical issues have aroused great expectations. But this may end up leave many disappointed. "Appointing a woman to head a dicastery is pure science-fiction," judges, for instance, one Curia official close to Pope Francis.
Deeply rooted in his role of a shepherd, the pope exhorts, denounces, prophesizes, but has so far taken very few decisions that turn his vision of the Church into acts. In order to succeed, he is undoubtedly betting on his creed: "The first reform must be that of attitudes."