Can Pope Francis Reconcile His Message of Humility With the Vatican’s Rigid Power Structure?

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, in Rome, I attended a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis himself, the man who has become, unexpectedly, the most powerful spokesman against inequality and injustice in the world. The Mass was held outdoors, at the Lateran Palace; it was free and open to all. I was in Rome as a journalist-invitee to an academic conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame on the topic of “contending modernities,” and though I am not a Catholic, I love religion. I had a rare chance to glimpse this sensational figure — the bishop who reaches out to the faithful by calling them on the phone, who in his frequent displays of humility washes the feet of the elderly and the incarcerated and others of society’s lowest castes — on the very spot, practically, where, more than 1,600 years ago, Christianity became the religion of empire. It seemed to me an opportunity not to be missed.

John Paul II was a rock star, too, of course, but his appeal — a forward-looking, optimistic statesman, a friend of Ronald Reagan — suited his time. Not since Vatican II has a pope done more to “throw open the windows of the church,” as John XXIII put it, and let the fresh air in. Francis is a pope for now — decrying poverty, confronting climate change, and establishing a tribunal for bishops who looked away from sex offenders. Crowds began to assemble by the Laterano hours before the worship was to commence, and as I joined them at the fences lining the square, I noticed how this gathering reflected the themes of the conference I was there to attend. The people who pushed against the metal barriers were the very picture of modernity: African, Asian, European, Latin, and North American, they were a global collection of the devout and the curious, the young and the old, in shorts and Sunday dresses, equipped one and all with cell phones and earbuds. As they waited for the pontiff to appear, they took selfies and busied themselves downloading apps that would allow them to hear the Mass in their native tongues.

Technology mediated and enhanced an experience that for many — the uninitiated; Catholics with a casual knowledge of the liturgy; those who spoke no Italian at all — would have otherwise been inaccessible. “Why is the Lateran Palace called the Lateran Palace?” one person in my group wondered aloud. Google gave us the answer in less than a minute: “Laterani” was an aristocratic Roman family before the reign of Constantine. Our question having been answered, a member of our group (a Cameroon-born Baptist working as a professor at a university in Texas) made a resonant remark. Francis is known for his relentless critique of capitalism and the soullessness it creates, he said. But the ability to access Wikipedia from a pocket computer while standing in a crowd of thousands in the center of Rome is a product of capitalism of incalculable worth —  as edifying as any Bible study.

Indeed, all this progress clashed quite dramatically with the ancient ritual that was taking place before my eyes, which has endured alongside — and sometimes in spite of — dramatic changes in the way people live and how they (in the developed, democratic West at least) understand their agency in the world. Francis may be preaching a message of humility and love, but the scene at the Laterano told a different story: of an ancient corporation that esteems hierarchy, that calls itself a patriarchy without any irony, that collects power for itself and doles out favors, including its sacraments, to those it approves. As the crowd pressed against the barriers, certain worthy VIPs were being admitted into the piazza itself, within pitching distance of the altar, into what at a baseball game would be the box seats. There were ushers in white tie and tails, and security guards, looking like Secret Service, listening to unseen voices in earphones and barring interlopers from the inner circle.

Inside the barriers, men who had given their lives to God promenaded toward their places near the altar like so many rare birds. There were hundreds of them, garbed in costumes from another age, each sartorial iteration conveying a rank, an order, and a history that to the inexpert eye was both certain and obscure. There was the Swiss Guard, of course, in their striped knickers and spats; priests in red cassocks and lace aprons called rochets; priests wearing purple with golden tassels dangling down their backs; priests in velvet birettas and white-cassocked monks with Birkenstocks on their feet. All these men had places up front, in easy view of the pontiff — who, when he entered the square clad in white and gold, took his place on a white chair that can only be called a throne.

The Mass itself carried another dissonance. Francis’s gentle, slurred voice infused the square with a kind of enveloping holiness. The sun began to set on Rome; a boy near me who looked about 10 began to cry; birds circled in the bluish air. “We scatter … when we do not live in brotherhood, when we compete to occupy the best places … when we do not find the courage to give a witness of charity, when we are unable to offer hope,” Francis said. Even in a homily with a narrow, theo­logical theme — the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic faith — the pope found a chance to repudiate self-serving ambition and offer a view of brotherhood and love instead.

But it was impossible to ignore that, even outdoors, at an “open” event, the crowd was arranged in tiers and rows, so that each participant could see his or her higher or lower position in the order of things. We might have been medieval villagers crowding a massive cathedral with invisible walls. The pope sat at the head of the assembly, flanked by a small number of favored priests.

Nuns, too, had been allowed through the barriers, hundreds of them, looking like the drab avian mates of the jewel-colored males, wearing habits and wimples of gray, blue, white, and brown. They were seated in the nave, the foot of the cross, where, in medieval times, the masses were permitted to congregate, sometimes separated from the clergy by an internal fence. When it was time for Communion, dozens of young priests came down from on high, a flock of men descending into the crowd to distribute the host. The men gave Communion to the masses hanging over the barriers as well as to the women, the sisters who had equally given their lives to Christ. The men had the power; the women did not.

The Roman Catholic Church is notable for the unofficial flexibility of its faithful, who find ways to express their individual preferences and priorities — to support gay marriage, or use birth-control pills, or take Communion though divorced — within a set of laws said to have been initiated by God and made rigid by tradition. Catholics, in other words, are used to, and uniquely good at, holding contradictory truths in their minds at once. So while it is not too surprising that Francis, the populist, maintains a status within his church a notch above that of any medieval king, it is jarring to see that status expressed and enacted, in the 21st century, as if it were ordinary, as if the distance between his message and his office could be measured in something other than light-years. Francis, who has none of his predecessor Benedict’s taste for papal couture, has gone much further than recent popes in dismantling the hierarchical hubris of his office. And it is his particular genius to hold the position and the power his election ­confers — to wear that miter on his head! — while preaching care of the poor. Still, the Mass was a reminder that Francis, who has said that the church’s hierarchy ought to be more like “shepherds, living with the smell of sheep,” is much more than a simple pastor after all. He understands deeply his own extraordinary place: The world gazes upward at him; from his peak he can redirect that gaze below.

*This article has been edited and updated since its original publication. It appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Pope Francis Balances Humility, Vatican Opulence