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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STEFANO SPAZIANI

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Francis brings his experience with Argentine evangelicals to the Brazilian stage. Argentina's Protestants love him. "Whenever you talk to him," Juan Pablo Bongarrá, president of the Argentine Bible Society, a Protestant evangelical organization, told Christianity Today, "the conversation ends with a request, 'Pastor, pray for me.'" As Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio reportedly once attended a prayer meeting of evangelical preachers and, kneeling in front of a congregation of nearly 6,000, had Protestant pastors lay hands on him to pray. (Conservative Catholics are still shocked over it.) If Francis can create a similar religious détente or even alliance in Brazil, the secular government would have to take notice. Indeed, even without such an alliance, the leftist administration of President Dilma Rousseff abandoned an election plank that favored the legalization of abortion for fear of losing the religious vote--both Catholic and Protestant.

A Cardinal consorting with non-Catholic preachers is one thing. A Pontiff doing so is much more complicated. Unscripted moments can cause theological consternation. "It's wonderful and problematic at the same time," says the theologian Dodaro. "Catholic theologians are used to treating each word of the Pope as the magisteria, as part of his teachings, which has a binding authority on the church." The Pope enjoys speaking off the cuff, especially when he holds morning Mass. During the addresses, which last five to 10 minutes, Francis has no written text, not even notes. The homilies are colloquial and, when he wants to make a point, repetitious. He delivers them in Italian, which is not his native language--though his parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina--so he sometimes uses the wrong words. Not wanting to have him speak in mangled Italian, the Vatican newspaper often paraphrases Francis in order not to misquote him. Says Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L'Osservatore Romano: "If he uses an inappropriate verb, we synthesize that passage."

Francis, Dodaro says, seems to be aware of the potential for doctrinal confusion and has given instructions that his unscripted homilies not be published as official documents. But that hasn't stopped people from poring over them. "We want to try to discern policy, but deeper than that, teaching." It is only four months into his papacy. There will be many more words and actions to ponder, sifting through the gentle and the cunning, to reach the heart of Francis.

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