No Room for Decadent 'Princes' in Francis' Vatican

02/26/2015 04:04 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
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"Following Francis" is a monthly blog on the latest happenings of Pope Francis. It is prepared exclusively for The WorldPost by Sébastien Maillard, Vatican Correspondent for La Croix, Rome

ROME -- For the second year in a row, Pope Francis joined his closest high-level collaborators onboard a white coach, which left the Vatican on a Sunday afternoon for a weeklong retreat outside Rome. Taking your executive board out for a seminar may seem like usual business for any CEO, like sharing the same coffee breaks. At the Vatican, such manners are still new.

Before Francis, the pope was someone you would not come across incidentally. Even if you were a cardinal from the Roman curia, which gathers all the departments running the Holy See.

"I was once told not to stand in the hallway where the pope was supposed to walk through in order for him not to see me," recalled a senior cardinal. Francis has abandoned these monarchical customs and introduced more modern and simple ways of management. "Before, when you wanted to meet the pope, you were eventually granted an audience some months afterwards. Today, you get your appointment just days later," said another Vatican staff member.

You may even have the pope come straight to you nowadays. On a flight to Manila in January, journalists witnessed Francis walk up the aisle to speak to someone from his delegation who was sitting some rows behind. His predecessors would have remained seated and summoned such a person to come forward. Before the last Synod (a world gathering of bishops), Pope Francis personally attended all the preparatory meetings in premises near Vatican City. He did not have the entire meeting moved to him.

TOO HUMBLE?

This is all very humble for a "sovereign pontiff." Too humble, perhaps?

Some Vatican insiders fear the new pope is destroying everything that made his position so historically unique and authoritative. On the contrary, for Jorge Bergoglio, this is how a Christian leader truly serves. He showed it at the very beginning of his pontificate, right after his election, when he joined his "brother cardinals" inside their minivan rather than stepping into a separate car.

This lead-by-example approach is also a way for him to make sure things get done. Getting to know his collaborators closely, not just through a formal audience, enables him to more thoroughly reform the curia from inside.

Pope Francis was elected in the aftermath of scandals linked to the mismanagement of the Holy See, which had shocked even the cardinals outside Rome. He has a mandate to reform. And he has proven to everyone at the Vatican that he is determined to do so -- not overnight but step by step.

He brought in, for the first time ever, big consulting firms, such as McKinsey or Ernst & Young, to audit Vatican departments. Steering committees have been set up to advise on structural changes, such as a commission headed by Lord Chris Patten to reform Vatican media operations.

Francis takes time to watch, listen, consult and then decide. He is not a pope who reigns but one who governs.

When a musical concert was organized for him, he never showed up, leaving his center-stage seat empty and conveying a message that he had not a minute to spare for this kind of entertainment.

"Every time I met with him, I felt I was in front of some boss of a Wall Street-listed company," said one professional expert hired to assist reform. His leadership style is one of an austere workaholic who remains the master while serving. "Francis of Assisi is what you see from the outside, but when you come close to him, you recognize a Jesuit general," said another layperson at the Vatican.

Being a "Jesuit general" means Francis does not just want a structural reorganization, but, first, what he calls "spiritual reform." This is what his speech to the curia before Christmas was all about. He spelled out 15 "diseases" he had sensed, including one he termed "existential schizophrenia." According to Francis, this is a disease that "often strikes those who abandon pastoral service and restrict themselves to bureaucratic matters, thus losing contact with reality, with concrete people."

"Spiritual reform" was also the reason behind a retreat outside Rome during Lent. Before, these "spiritual exercises" used to happen inside the Vatican, during working hours. They were not a real break. The Jesuit pope wants his collaborators to live more than this, to feel healed, like good Christians preparing for Easter.

It was said before last year's retreat that not all the heads of departments were glad to board the coach for such an ascetic experience, where they slept all week in a monk-style bedroom with no TV. Cardinals and bishops even had to pay for their own stay -- 50 to 55 euros a day, each.

For Francis, all this is his way of encouraging Vatican officials to remain faithful to what they have dedicated their lives to, and to the global Catholic community. If the pope is no more than a king in his church, then there shall be no room for princes.

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