It is an impression the Vatican, an institution in crisis and in search of a new beginning, is doing little to dispel. Only time will tell the extent to which an austere Argentine cleric, known for taking public transit and kissing the feet of drug addicts and AIDS patients, can remold the ancient office. Questions, for instance, are still swirling about his actions during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” from 1976 to 1983.
But as the new pope has appeared to exude humility, even charm, during his first few days in Vatican City, there appears to be an early sense, at least among the church hierarchy, that an institution craving a new image may have just found its man.
Some are holding out hope that he can recapture an echo of the global popularity of Pope John Paul II. But others describe Francis as having a style that is wholly different from either of the past two popes. Rather than appearing to be a larger-than-life, charismatic leader like John Paul II or a dogmatic teacher as some have described Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’s soft-spoken, straightforward manner appears aimed more at gently winning over audiences by putting himself on their level.
Talking about the new pope’s ability to revitalize his flock, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said: “I would think you could point to his style, his pastoral history and his whole manner in what we have seen in just the last couple of days. Live it. Let people see it, and that in itself is bearing witness.”
In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan gushed over the new pope’s humble demeanor. He noted that rather than take the papal limousine — widely known as Vatican One — back to his accommodations after being named pope, Francis instead jumped on a minibus.
“We cardinals noticed some things immediately that he was doing differently,” Dolan said. He later added: “He got back on the bus with us, like he had been doing for the whole conclave. Those are little signs that send signals.”
Those little signs include his decision to appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica without the red mozzetta — the telltale short cape of the papacy. And on the morning after he was named pope, Francis reportedly doubled back to his church boarding house to personally cover his bill.