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  • John Thavis

First the gestures, now the words

A new pontificate is judged chiefly on gestures, words and decisions.

Through his gestures, Pope Francis has already won the hearts of many inside and outside the church. Wearing his old black shoes, riding the bus and paying his pensione bill immediately announced a new and simpler style of papacy.

In a world that communicates largely in images, this is no small matter. “Jesus was born in a manger” is sometimes heard sarcastically by visitors to the Vatican’s rather opulent chambers, and a pope who dials down the extravagance will have a positive reception.

On Thursday, we heard some of the first words from Pope Francis, in a homily to the cardinals who elected him the 266th pontiff. The words were challenging, and gave a clue to the kind of “reforms” Francis may have in mind. (It was interesting that the pope set aside a draft text prepared in advance for this occasion, and preferred to speak off-the-cuff.)

His basic point was that a church that doesn’t remain true to the message of “Christ on the cross” risks drifting into a worldly way of thinking that ultimately leads nowhere.

A church that builds structures without the firm foundation of faith, he said, is like “children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away.” Without professing Christ, the church would become merely a “charitable NGO.”

He then quoted Léon Bloy, a French agnostic who converted to Catholicism: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”

“When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness,” the pope said.

And more: “When we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”

These are words – the devil! – that may strike listeners as severe. Some may even see an implication that anything outside the church is beyond salvation.

I think what the pope was signaling was something different. I think he was speaking above all to the cardinals in the room, and letting them know that the church reforms he has in mind are not going to be coming out of a management manual, but will be motivated by the most radical demands of the Gospel.

‘We are brothers’

Today the pope gave a very different kind of talk, when he met with cardinals – both electors in the conclave and those over the age of 80. He had a text but departed from it often, speaking in a conversational style.

He kept emphasizing that “we are brothers” and a “community of friends” – perhaps a signal of how he views collegiality.

And he talked frankly about the fact that this was, after all, a gathering of a pretty elderly group.

“Dear brothers, maybe half of us are in old age. Old age is the seat of the wisdom of life. We have the wisdom of having walked through life like Simeon and Anna at the temple. Let us give this wisdom to the youth, like good wine, that with age becomes even better.”

Pope Francis also acknowledged the generally sympathetic international reaction to his election.

“I felt the affection of the universal church,” and even from people who do not share the Catholic faith, he said. “From every corner of the earth I felt prayers for the new pope.”

He indicated he would try to build on that affection, and he encouraged the cardinals to do the same. “Let’s never give to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.” (Yes, “the devil” again.)

Neither of these first two talks was exactly a “state of the church” address, or an outline of what he sees as his priorities. Maybe we’ll get that at his installation Mass next week, maybe not. Pope Francis appears to be a man of few words, and as someone told me today, he likes short liturgies.

Waiting for first appointments

The new pope’s first major decisions will probably be his appointments, in particular that of secretary of state. He clearly needs someone in that position who knows the Roman Curia well enough to navigate its tricky currents, and make reforms without too much collateral damage.

One Italian who might fit the bill is Archbishop Claudio Celli, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. A seasoned diplomat who was stationed in Argentina (and who knew then-Father Bergoglio) during the years of the military dictatorship, Celli later worked as a top foreign affairs official in the Secretariat of State, handling Chinese and East European affairs, among others.

Later, he was for years secretary of the Vatican’s investment and accounting office. As president of the communications council, he has pushed for a greater Vatican presence in social media and helped launch the pope’s Twitter account.

The pope’s advice to Argentine Catholics

The Vatican today confirmed that the night of his election, Pope Francis suggested to Argentine Catholics that instead of making the very expensive trip to Rome for his inaugural Mass next week, they stay home and make an offering to the poor.

That’s very much in line with the pope’s attitude and actions as an archbishop in Buenos Aires (though it probably did not endear the new pontiff with Rome’s tourist and pilgrim industry.)

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