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  • John Thavis

Settling in for a fascinating journey

The first 100 days of a pope are not like the first 100 days of a president or prime minister or a CEO. A pope thinks long-term, and is under less pressure to put forward a series of short-term goals or programs. Most of the issues facing a pope transcend the pragmatic and the political. They require careful thought, prayer and consultation, not a string of policy statements.

For journalists, though, 100 days is a marker that requires evaluation and commentary. It was certainly the hot topic at the Catholic Media Conference this week in Denver, where I gave a talk this morning to several hundred Catholic communicators.

So what do we know about Pope Francis after 100 days in office? We’ve had no important documents, few significant appointments and no earth-shaking reforms of the Roman Curia.

But we do have a healthy dose of papal thinking and papal preaching – on everything ranging from clerical careerism to sweatshop employment. And we have a number of papal gestures that speak volumes to people inside and outside the church.

I don’t want to recap Pope Francis’ 100-day “greatest hits” here. Instead, I’d like to identify a few core characteristics and directions that seem to be emerging:

1. Francis has relocated the papacy outside the Roman Curia.

First, choosing to live in the less formal Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments has turned out to be a crucial decision, because geography counts at the Vatican. The papal apartments are surrounded by Roman Curia offices, deep inside the Apostolic Palace, and Francis would have been much more isolated there. He is a people person, after all.

Second, the pope has named a group of eight cardinals – now to be expanded to nine – to advise him on matters of church governance and Roman Curia reform. Only one is a member of the Roman Curia. Nothing said more clearly that Francis intends to rely less on Vatican insiders and more on the world’s bishops when it comes to governing.

Third, much of the pope’s preaching has come in morning Masses at the Vatican guesthouse, in off-the-cuff homilies that are brief, insightful and sharply worded. The Vatican bureaucracy doesn’t even consider these homilies part of the pope’s real Magisterium, and has yet to publish full texts. One reason, I think, is that unlike formal papal speeches, these extemporized talks don’t go through the usual bureaucratic machinery. They are less controlled by the Curia.

2. Francis has begun his “reform” of the Vatican by evangelizing.

The people who attend the pope’s morning Masses are groups of Vatican officials and employees, and his words are directed at them in a particular way. In that sense, Pope Francis’ reform of the Vatican has already begun. Not in the way the world was expecting, through high-profile appointments of Roman Curia heads – though that will come in due time. Instead, the pope is evangelizing the Vatican. He’s laying the spiritual groundwork for reform, by preaching the Gospel in his own back yard. For him, “new evangelization” begins at home.

3. The pope’s vision of the church’s role is less about internal identity and more about external influence.

He wants the church to be present in people’s lives. For priests, that means getting out with their faithful and sharing their problems – as he put it in his memorable and earthy phrase, pastors should have “the odor of sheep.” For bishops, it means an end to careerism (today he told nuncios that when evaluating candidates for bishop, they should avoid ambitious prelates and choose pastors who are close to the people.)

For lay Catholics, it means being willing to live the Gospel and proclaim it joyfully in word and deed, especially to those who are suffering. Although this takes courage, evangelization is not a burden, and shouldn’t seem like one, the pope said.

4. The pope’s social justice agenda is slowly taking center stage.

His sharply worded challenges to the global economic system (“We live in a world where money rules … “We need to flip things over, like a tortilla: Money is not the image and likeness of God.”) indicate that his planned encyclical, “Blessed Are the Poor,” will not be easily spun by the defenders of an unrestricted free-market economy.

But his economic Gospel is not merely aimed at international agencies and power brokers. He wants the church to embody concern for the poor and suffering, and has cautioned priests and bishops to resist the lure of the business model. “Proclaiming the Gospel must take the road of poverty.” He understands that practicing what one preaches is the key to church credibility in the eyes of many people today.

5. He has confidence in his own spontaneity.

So far, he’s willing to be unscripted in “safe” settings like the morning Mass or an audience with children, but also in “unsafe” settings like his conversation with the officials of the Latin American Conference of Religious. I’ve seen other popes go down this path (even Benedict like to extemporize at first) but top Vatican officials would pretty quickly convince them that a prepared text is better for everyone. It seems to me that Francis has decided otherwise, and I think the reason is that, for him, being a pastor is not the same as being a speechgiver.

At 100 days, I think we’re beyond the “honeymoon” period. We’re settling into a fascinating pontificate.

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