• John Thavis

Pope Francis passes a curious milestone

Pope Francis is passing a strange milestone today, one that is more on some people’s minds than I would have guessed: his 34th day in office.

In 1978, Pope John Paul I died 34 days after his election, one of the briefest reigns in church history. His death shocked the world and launched conspiracy theories that the “smiling pope” was murdered by enemies inside the Vatican.

I was in Rome at the time, and based on what I have learned over the years I remain unconvinced of any supposed plot to remove the reform-minded John Paul I. He had serious health problems, and there’s no good reason to doubt that he died of a massive heart attack.

But in the popular imagination, the modern Vatican has never completely shed its Borgia-era image. The idea that powerful prelates will stop at nothing to advance their hidden agendas is still very much alive.

That’s been brought home to me in recent days, as I’ve spoken to various groups on my book-promotion tour on the West Coast. I don’t want to make too much of this, but at every stop so far, someone has asked about Pope Francis’ “safety” – as if the pope’s reform plans might inevitably produce an internal, and perhaps fatal, backlash inside the Vatican.

Sometimes this is asked in a tone of black humor, but I’ve been surprised at how often the questioner is quite serious. I’ve tried to reassure my audiences that, for both practical and moral reasons, they don’t really have to worry about that scenario.

One reason the question is asked is that Pope Francis reminds many people of Pope John Paul I – in his simplicity, humility and willingness to do things differently at the Vatican. Both popes were elected at a time when many were calling for financial reforms in the Vatican, particularly reform of the Vatican bank.

Pope Francis has a long road ahead of him when it comes to transforming the Vatican bureaucracy. As he showed over the weekend, when he appointed an eight-cardinal advisory panel on church governance, he knows he’s embarked on a delicate process that will take some time to implement. Clearly, he’s looking well beyond 34 days.

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