A Pope for the Poor

Will Francis' personal humility and focus on poverty help revive the church's fortunes on his home continent?


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    The dramatic change is that Francis seems to have quite consciously decided that the efforts of the church--for its own long-term interests--are best expended on economic issues. If the past four months are any indication, that shift resonates with the faithful and those who have drifted away. Near the church of Santa Maria Consolatrice in Rome, an area hard hit by Europe's economic crisis, many storefronts are empty. But, says Father Giovanni Biallo, who runs the parish, the working-class parishioners have been deeply touched by what Francis has had to say. "Every Sunday," says Biallo, "there is someone coming into the church and confessing after many years." He says young people are especially moved by the message of simplicity. "Gay marriage is not the world's first priority right now. The economy is. The crisis can be a good moment to come back to the real needs of the people."

    Blessed Are the Poor

    "He's a heavenly Rock Star," says Omar Bello, the author of a new book on the Pope. An adviser for the television station of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires and the editor of La Verdad, the Catholic Church's newspaper in Junín, Argentina, Bello says Francis is genuinely spartan in his lifestyle. But, he adds, despite the gentle public persona, Bergoglio in private can be intimidating. "He jokes and makes you laugh," Bello says. "But watch out if he gets angry, because he can be very tough. He is no papal Lassie." To Bello, the Pope's affability is a natural by-product of his management style. "He likes to stay informed, and he likes power," says Bello. "He's both open and very conservative. Speaking with everybody is his way of leadership. He's very charming, but he can also be a controller, as all powerful people are."

    In Argentina, the future Francis was admired for his willingness to sweat it out like ordinary folk, trundling to work on buses and trains. Voluntary poverty, of course, has always been a spiritual exercise, bringing a person closer to God by stripping away attachments and temptations. But there also are practical reasons for living in a humbler state than his predecessors. Donations to the Holy See from Catholics around the world for charity purposes have declined from $101 million in 2006--during Benedict's honeymoon period--to $65.9 million in 2012, an indication perhaps of the global economic crisis, disgust over the unabated abuse controversies or both. The Vatican is paying more in property taxes to the Italian state--an additional $5 million. At the very least, a Pope's choosing to live on the cheap is a cost savings and leadership by example that might trickle down to the more lavish princelings of the church.

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