Pope Francis' 1st year: No revoluton, but hope for change
ROME - Seated in one of the thousands of stacking chairs packed between the enfolding arms of St. Peter's Square, pointed at a small stage on the steps of one of the world's most recognizable places of worship, Texan Bob Boillet uses the word everybody seems to be using when talking about the head of his church, Pope Francis.
The word? "Hope." It's a big word for many Roman Catholics these days. There's hope for inclusion, for acceptance and mostly for forgiveness.
"He talks about a more open-armed church. I like that," the 48-year-old San Antonio resident said. "Actual change won't be easy, especially when that change is about some dearly held beliefs. But he talks about a more open, more accepting church, and that gives me hope."
It'll be a year ago next Thursday when a puff of white smoke from the Sistine Chapel announced that the Roman Catholic Church had a new head. The choice was a 76-year-old Argentine cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio. He arrived to find a church that many thought was out of touch with the modern world.
His church was struggling most visibly with a child sex abuse crisis, but there were other problems, such as how to deal with the modern realities of marriage, divorce and contraception. The Vatican bank had been shunned by most of Europe's central bankers. There were reports of homosexual orgies that involved members of the Vatican's government, fueled by a series of leaks of secret Vatican reports.
Amid this chaos, Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, a theologian who'd once overseen the church's investigation of child sexual abuse, announced that he would retire. It was a notion, in a church where every leader had died in office since 1294, that underscored the level of crisis. Popes simply don't retire.
Another centuries-old assumption also was about to die. The new pope was from South America, the first non-European to lead the church since A.D. 741. It was a signal of a church turning from its European past to a Southern Hemisphere future.
Bergoglio was not a choice without controversy, not least because he was not a man without controversy. Immediately, old accusations resurfaced that he'd failed to stand up strongly enough against the abductions of two priests during Argentina's "dirty war," an accusation he's strongly denied.
Others wondered whether Pope Francis would be as fiery as he'd been when as the archbishop of Buenos Aires he'd once lashed out at "hypocrites" among the clergy who "drive God's people away from salvation" by refusing to baptize the children of unwed mothers.
But if his ascension created a bit of stir, his first year in office has been closer to a whirlwind. Within months, those both inside and watching the Vatican - the city-state within Rome that serves as home to the church - were talking about "the Francis revolution" and "Vatican glasnost," a reference to the period in Soviet history when Mikhail Gorbachev began coming clean about huge problems, such as the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
Francis quickly told the Vatican to act aggressively on child sexual abuse cases and has since set up a commission to advise him on how to deal with pedophile priests.
While a change in policy remains to be seen, it was an open and very public declaration of intent, which many saw as at least the beginning of a positive change.
In addition, on a plane ride back to the Vatican from a World Youth Day in Brazil, he said: "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
He baptized the baby of a couple who'd been married outside the church - in the Sistine Chapel, no less - and promised an unmarried pregnant woman that he'd baptize her child as well, if she couldn't find another willing priest.
The head of an almost unimaginably wealthy church, he spoke out against financial inequality.
In a November apostolic exhortation, he said, "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?"
There are powerful vested interests in the church status quo. As such, some Vatican watchers focus more on Pope Francis' moves with the Vatican bank than on his social programs.
In his first year, he replaced four of five cardinals who sat on a bank supervisory board. Those replaced had been appointed to five-year terms in the last days of Benedict's papacy.
During Francis' first year, the Vatican has been more transparent about scandals within the bank - most notably accusations of money laundering - than a history of tightly held finances would have foreseen.
"It's an image change, certainly," he said. "But real change can take many years, even several popes. You don't so easily change an organization of 1 billion Catholics."
While Francis has addressed topics such as Communion for those who've divorced and offered hope for a larger role for women in the church hierarchy, Tosatti notes that any change would come against the deeply held beliefs of many around the world. Change isn't as easy as announcing it from the Vatican.