The Environment’s Pope

TIME Books

Francis is making the environment a top concern and speaking out against the ‘sin’ of ‘exploiting the Earth’

This month marks the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. The following is taken from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr.

It was probably inevitable that the first pope named Francis—inspired by a saint who preached to birds and gave pet names to the sun and the moon—has turned out to be a strong environmentalist. In fact, Francis has said that concern for the environment is a defining Christian virtue. (The young Jorge Bergoglio trained as a chemist, so he has a foundation to appreciate the scientific issues involved.) This element of the social gospel bubbled to the surface as early as his inaugural mass, when Francis issued a plea to “let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”

St. Francis’s imprint on this pope is clearly strong. In unscripted comments during a meeting with the president of Ecuador in April 2013, he said, “Take good care of creation. St. Francis wanted that. People occasionally forgive, but nature never does. If we don’t take care of the environment, there’s no way of getting around it.”

The two previous popes were also environmentalists. The mountain-climbing, kayaking John Paul II was a strong apostle for ecology, once issuing an almost apocalyptic warning that humans “must finally stop before the abyss” and take better care of nature. Benedict XVI’s ecological streak was so strong that he earned a reputation as “the Green Pope” because of his repeated calls for stronger environmental protection, as well as gestures such as installing solar panels atop a Vatican audience hall and signing an agreement to make the Vatican Europe’s first carbon-neutral state.

Francis is carrying that tradition forward. Among other things, he told French President François Hollande during a January 2014 meeting that he is working on an encyclical on the environment. (An encyclical is considered the most developed and authoritative form of papal teaching.) The Vatican has since confirmed that Francis indeed intends to deliver the first encyclical ever devoted entirely to environmental issues.

In a July 2014 talk at the Italian university of Molise, Francis described harm to the environment as “one of the greatest challenges of our times.” It’s a challenge, he said, that’s theological as well as political in nature. “I look at . . . so many forests, all cut, that have become land . . . that can [no] longer give life,” the pope continued, citing South American woodlands in particular. “This is our sin, exploiting the Earth. . . . This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation.”

Not so long ago, the idea of Catholic environmentalism would have struck some as a contradiction in terms. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was fashionable among pioneers of the environmental movement to fault the entire Judeo-Christian tradition for humanity’s savage indifference to the earth. Lynn White, Jr., of the University of California published an influential article in the journal Science in 1967 in which he blamed the Bible for making Westerners feel “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” While acknowledging contrary currents in Christian history such as St. Francis, White nonetheless ended with a sweeping indictment: “We shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man.”

Today things are virtually upside down, with Pope Francis seen as an important environmental advocate. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Tara Isabella Burton praised Francis for “publicly—with the dizzying reach granted to a man in his position—emphasizing an understanding of nature that, in contrast to the combative dichotomy so prevalent in mainstream politico-religious discourse, is intrinsically positive in its treatment of the physical world.” Burton called the pope’s vision one “that is, radically and profoundly, pro-life.” Burton’s reference to “pro-life” connotes that Francis is leading Catholics to view environmental concern as part and parcel of what it means to foster a “culture of life,” and therefore of equivalent importance as resisting abortion and gay marriage.

In the argot of contemporary environmental thinkers, if Benedict XVI was the Green Pope, then Francis may be remembered as the “Dark Green Pope”—a figure who intensifies the Church’s commitment to the environment by linking it to the corrosive effects of consumerism and runaway global capitalism. Before Francis arrived on the scene, the American political theorist Jeremy Rifkin forecast that issues such as GMOs and climate change would dissolve the old left-right divisions, creating a new “biopolitics” in which defenders of nature on the left and defenders of human life on the right would find themselves allies, standing against a 21st-century hyper-industrialism that sees everything, including nature and organic life, as a commodity. Francis, the pope of the social gospel, could develop into the leader who makes Rifkin’s prediction come true.

Excerpted from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr., published by TIME Books, an imprint of Time Home Entertainment Inc.



Why Pope Francis Won’t Let Women Become Priests

TIME Books

The first pope of the Catholic Church to have had a woman as a boss is steadfast in his defense of the status quo when it comes to women and Church leadership

This month marks the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. The following is taken from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr.

On two occasions when Pope Francis has been asked about possibly admitting women to the ranks of the clergy, he has given a firm no.

At the same time, he has said that he wants to see a “greater role” for women in Catholicism, including participation in the “important decisions . . . where the authority of the Church is exercised.” He has also said that he wants a “deeper theology” about the place of women in the faith, one that will emphasize the critically important contributions they make. During his first two years in office, however, there were relatively few steps forward in either regard. No groundbreaking new roles for women were created and no new theological study was commissioned. While Francis’s popularity tends to insulate him against the criticism that such a record might otherwise attract, over time his ability to reframe impressions of the Catholic Church as a boys’ club, at least at the top, will be an important measure of his success—not merely because it’s a question of interest to the outside world but also because Francis himself has set it as a standard.

Pope Francis was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1958, meaning most of his formative experiences as a priest came before the reforming Second Vatican Council, held from 1962–65. The pre–Vatican II period was an era in which prospective clergymen typically entered the system young and lived in an environment in which interaction with the opposite sex was deliberately restricted, to the point that they were discouraged from looking too closely at women, a discipline known in the argot of the clerical world as “custody of the eyes.”

As a result, when talk turns to women, clerics of the pope’s generation often talk about their mothers or grandmothers, or perhaps a nun who taught them in grade school. They are keen to extol the domestic contributions of women—their importance in raising families, passing on the faith and imparting basic human virtues—which can make their rhetoric seem outdated and patronizing. Francis certainly feels such fondness for the women in his own family, especially, as we have seen, his paternal grandmother, Rosa.

On the other hand, Francis is atypical of many clergymen of his generation in that he did not enter a minor seminary as a teenager, where he would have been cut off from the outside world. Instead, he moved in the hurly-burly world of Argentina in the 1950s, a time when the Latin American nation was considered one of the most developed, cosmopolitan societies in the world. It was an environment in which women could serve in leadership capacities, inspired by Eva Perón’s de facto role as spiritual leader of the nation.

After earning a degree from a technical school as a chemical assistant, Bergoglio worked in the foods section of the Hickethier-Bachmann laboratory, running chemical tests on nutrients. Bergoglio’s supervisor at the lab was Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a Paraguayan communist who had fled her country’s military dictatorship in 1949 and settled in Buenos Aires with her daughters. Although Francis didn’t realize it at the time, he would later become the first pope of the Catholic Church to have had a woman as a boss. He has often referred to Ballestrino as a major influence on his life. She was undoubtedly in his mind when he said in a 2013 interview that he wasn’t offended by Rush Limbaugh calling him a Marxist because “I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.” Francis has said that Ballestrino drilled into him the importance of paying attention to details in his work, forcing him to repeat tests to confirm his results. “The work I did was one of the best things I’ve done in my life,” Bergoglio later said in a 2010 interview with Argentine journalists Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti. “[Esther Ballestrino de Careaga was] an extraordinary boss. When I handed her an analysis, she’d say, ‘Wow, you did that so fast. . . . Did you do the test or not?’ I would answer, ‘What for?’ If I’d done all the previous tests, it would surely be more or less the same. ‘No, you have to do things properly,’ she would chide me. In short, she taught me the seriousness of hard work. Truly, I owe a huge amount to that great woman.” In another section of the interview, Bergoglio said that Ballestrino “taught me so much about politics.”

Bergoglio reconnected with his former boss a decade later, when she and her family were under surveillance by the Argentine military regime. At one point, Ballestrino called to ask him to come to her house to give a relative last rites, which surprised Bergoglio because he knew the family wasn’t religious. The truth was that Ballestrino needed someone to stash her extensive collection of Marxist literature; the young Jesuit provincial superior agreed to do so. Later, Bergoglio helped Ballestrino find one of her daughters who had been kidnapped by military forces. (She was detained and tortured for several months before being released.) Ballestrino became one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, often reaching out to Bergoglio for help.

Tragically, Ballestrino herself “disappeared” at the hands of security forces in 1977. Almost three decades later, when her remains were discovered and identified, Bergoglio gave permission for her to be buried in the garden of a Buenos Aires church called Santa Cruz, the spot where she had been abducted. Her daughter requested that her mother and several other women be buried there because “it was the last place they had been as free people.” Despite knowing full well that Ballestrino was not a believing Catholic, the future pope readily consented.

Despite his talk of expanded roles for women in the Church, Francis is still firmly against ordaining women as priests or, for that matter, as clergy of any kind. He has even rejected the idea of reviving an older tradition of lay cardinals that would include women. (A lay cardinal is a nonclerical member of the College of Cardinals.) The proposal has drawn influential support from the likes of Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and columnist for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, but Francis has unambiguously shot it down. Francis’s clearest statement on the ordination issue came during an airborne press conference in July 2013, when he was returning from Rio de Janeiro. “The Church has spoken and says no. . . . That door is closed,” he said.

The pontiff’s rejection of female clergy is so unwavering that critics have accused him of having a blind spot on women’s issues. Jon O’Brien of the liberal dissent group Catholics for Choice, an organization that defies orthodoxy by supporting abortion rights, said in 2013 that the pope’s message seems to be “Women can wait while he takes care of more important issues.” In October 2013 a progressive priests’ group in Ireland leveled a similar charge when Francis signed off on the excommunication of Australian Fr. Greg Reynolds, in part for his advocacy of women’s ordination.

In May 2014 an advocacy group called Women’s Ordination Worldwide held a rally and press conference in Rome to complain that Francis’s reforming stance on other matters isn’t matched by his position on women’s issues. “It’s true that Pope Francis is portraying a new image of the Church being open to all and that he is trying to shake off the judgments and restrictions of the past,” said activist Miriam Duignan in Rome. “But despite this openness . . . Francis holds fast to the old party line that says, ‘Women in priesthood is not open to discussion. It is reserved for men alone. Women are not welcome.’ How long do women have to wait to be considered equal and worthy of receiving the same welcome by the official Church as men?”

For many people, including rank-and-file Catholics who believe in gender equality, it is difficult to square Francis’s overall reputation as a maverick and a progressive reformer—plus his specific pledges to enhance the role of women in Catholicism—with his steadfast defense of the status quo when it comes to female priests.

The fundamental reason for the Church’s refusal to admit women to the priesthood is that it’s bound by the example of Christ. Jesus did not include women among his original 12 apostles, so the argument runs, and the Church is compelled to follow that example, restricting the priesthood today to men. Although Francis presumably accepts that teaching, it’s not the basis of his own stance on the issue. For him, the push for women priests is where two forces repellent to him intersect: machismo, which is an especially resonant concept for a Latin American, and clericalism, an exaggerated emphasis on the power and privilege of the clergy, which is virtually this pope’s personal bête noire.

Prior to his election as pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger likewise argued that some models of feminism were based on a utilitarian logic that understands human relationships in terms of a contest for power, saying that on the man’s side of the ledger that sort of thinking “heads in the direction of machismo,” and thus feminism becomes an equal and opposite “reaction against the exploitation of woman.” In effect, the argument was that real feminism is not about an arms race with men, but rather about ending the arms race once and for all by rejecting power as the only way to evaluate one’s worth or dignity. As applied to the priesthood, the conclusion is that it’s a fallacy to believe that women will never be equal to men in the Church until they wield the same ecclesiastical power. Instead, the argument runs, real feminism means embracing “complementarity”: the idea that men and women play different but complementary roles in the wider world and inside the Church.

Naturally, it’s an argument that’s met with an uneven reception, as many women have responded that it’s rather disingenuous to play down the importance of power when you’re the one wielding it. Moreover, many theologians in Catholicism, both men and women, point out that in all its official teaching on the subject, the Church describes the priesthood in terms of service rather than power. If that’s true, they ask, couldn’t the desire of women to become priests be understood in terms of a call to serve rather than a lust for power? In other words, they wonder, has official papal rhetoric set up a straw man?

If anything, Francis recoils from clericalism even more viscerally than machismo. As Francis has defined it, clericalism means two things: first, an over-emphasis on what he called “small-minded rules” at the expense of mercy and compassion; and second, an exalted notion of clerical power and privilege, as opposed to the spirit of service. Francis sees clericalism almost as the original sin of the Catholic priesthood. In informal remarks to leaders of religious orders in late 2013, he referred to the hypocrisy of clericalism as “one of the worst evils” in the Church and memorably said that unless future priests are inoculated against it when they’re young, they risk turning out to be “little monsters.”

Francis believes the demand for women’s admission to the clerical ranks betrays an unconscious clericalism. In a December 2013 interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, he was asked about the notion that he might name female cardinals. “I don’t know where this idea sprang from,” Francis replied. “Women in the Church must be valued, not ‘clericalized.’ Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.” In his mind, conceding that the only way to elevate the role of women is to make them clergy feeds the mistaken notion that clerics are what’s most important about Catholicism, when he sees his mission instead as exalting the role of the laity. When he talks about a “deeper theology” of women, this is likely part of what he has in mind—a sort of Copernican revolution in Catholic consciousness, with laity and women the real protagonists of the Church’s mission in the world and the clergy a supporting cast. When he traveled to South Korea in August 2014, he repeatedly invoked the unique history of the Korean Church as one founded not by priests or foreign missionaries but by laypeople, and his delight in that fact was palpable.

To be sure, the argument is unlikely to satisfy many Catholics or women outside the Church, who will always see the ban on female priests as an anachronistic means of defending male privilege. But when Francis said, “That door is closed,” he seemed to mean it.

Excerpted from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr., published by TIME Books, an imprint of Time Home Entertainment Inc.


Pope Francis’s Report Card

TIME Books

A veteran Vatican watcher sizes up Pope Francis 

This article is adapted from the new book THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, published by Time Books.

Since his surprise election two years ago, Pope Francis has electrified and baffled the world in roughly equal measure. He’s launched Roman Catholicism on a reform path—though without altering its traditional ­teaching—and he’s tried to put a more compassionate and attractive face on its message. He has moved to address scandals and meltdowns that plagued the church under his predecessor and has done so in such a far-­reaching and unexpected fashion that some of the Cardinals who elected him may be getting more than they bargained for. But on some fronts, the ultimate impact remains unclear. Here’s where Pope Francis’ reform campaign stands on five key issues.

Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was known for his commitment to the villas miserias, or “villages of ­misery”—the vast slums that ring Buenos Aires. As Pope, he has said his dream is to lead a “poor church for the poor.”

Which makes Francis’ November 2014 text Evangelii Gaudium, or “Joy of the Gospel,” the Magna Carta of his papacy. In it, the Pope blasts the inequities of free-­market capitalism. “We have to say, ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness. This opinion … expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the … prevailing economic system.”

The rhetoric is pointed, and controversial to some, like Rush Limbaugh, who has accused the Pope of dishing up “pure Marxism.” While it may be impossible to show that Francis has actually reduced poverty and inequality around the world, many observers credit him for putting the poor front and center.

2. Women in the church: PROGRESS WITH A CEILING
Francis is the first Pope ever to have worked for a ­woman—his Paraguayan communist boss at an Argentine chemical lab in the 1950s. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he has appeared passionate about giving greater attention to women’s voices.

So far, Francis has named a handful of women to powerful Vatican positions, including Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor and former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, as a member of the supervisory board for the Vatican bank.

Yet he has also firmly excluded the idea of female priests, and critics say he can be tone-deaf in talking to or about women, using terms like old maid, for instance. He has ducked questions about when a woman might be named to head a Vatican department, and in general he has been vague about what his pledge of “greater roles” for women in Catholicism means. He has also urged a “deeper theology” of women without explaining what that would look like in practice.

Pope Benedict XVI left behind a mixed legacy on Catholicism’s child-sexual-abuse scandals. He was the first Pope to meet victims and the first to embrace a zero-­tolerance policy. He moved aggressively to weed abusers out of the priesthood, removing more than 400 in his final two years alone. Yet critics say Benedict fell short of holding bishops around the world accountable for failing to deal with the scandals.

Francis has taken steps to try to complete Benedict’s unfinished business, including the creation of a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which is led by Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston and includes two survivors of clerical abuse as members.

He has also launched a Vatican criminal trial for a former papal diplomat charged with abuse in the Dominican Republic, insisting that there will be no special privileges on his watch. In early February he dispatched a letter to all bishops saying “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors.”

Critics nevertheless charge that progress under Francis has been halfhearted and slow. In 2014 he approved an investigation of Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City—to date the only American bishop found guilty of a crime for failure to report a charge of child abuse. Until victims see a prelate like Finn disciplined, many will argue that the Pope’s efforts deserve a grade of incomplete.

4. Vatican Finances: THE NUMBERS WILL TELL
Over the years, money has been a recurrent source of Vatican scandal. The roll call runs through the Vatican bank crises of the 1970s and ’80s all the way up to the arrest in summer 2013 of “Monsignor 500 Euro”—a onetime Vatican accountant indicted by Italian authorities as part of a cash-smuggling scheme.

Francis began his reform by creating an ambitious three-part structure: a Secretariat for the Economy with power to impose fiscal discipline and accountability; a Council for the Economy composed of heavy-­hitter Cardinals as well as business professionals to oversee operations; and an independent auditor general to keep everyone honest.

To run it all, Francis brought in a tough-as-nails Australian prelate named George Pell. In mid-February, Pell reported to all Cardinals that his team had discovered $1.5 billion in hidden assets and a shortfall of almost $1 billion in the pension fund.

Pell and his team have their critics. Some members of the Vatican’s old guard believe it’s a reform in the spirit of the classic Italian novel Il Gattopardo: “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” More will become clear when the secretariat submits its first audited financial statement later this year.

Late in Benedict XVI’s tenure, one of Italy’s best-known political writers compared the Vatican to the Republic of Venice in the late 18th ­century—a nation-state with a proud history, reduced to diplomatic and political irrelevance and standing on the brink of extinction.

Nobody’s making that comparison today. Francis has restored the papacy and the Vatican to a level of political relevance not seen since the 1970s and ’80s, with the role John Paul II played in the collapse of communism. A few examples: On Feb. 16, Francis condemned the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS-­affiliated militants and called the slain hostages martyrs. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro credited Francis with paving the way for a deal to end tensions between their nations. And in 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Francis for helping to slow a rush to war in Syria by the Western powers.

While few doubt Francis’ political punch, some question how he exercises it. His line on Ukraine, for instance, has been faulted by many Ukrainians, including members of the Pontiff’s own Eastern Catholic flock there, for being overly deferential to Moscow and the Russian Orthodox Church. And hawks on Syria wonder if the Pope’s main accomplishment there has been propping up a thug. That’s the problem with acquiring political capital: everyone now has an opinion on how Francis ought to spend it.

Allen, a former senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, covers the Vatican for the Boston Globe and its website devoted to Catholic coverage, Crux. This article is adapted from his new book THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church, published by Time Books.

This article originally appeared in the March 16, 2015, issue of TIME.


How Pope Francis’s Vatican Got Its Political Swagger Back

TIME Books

The new leader of the Catholic Church has used personal ties and the element of surprise to try to make political change

This month marks the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election. The following is taken from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr.

Nowhere is the contrast between Benedict XVI and Francis more tangible than in the degree to which the papacy seems to have recovered its diplomatic and geopolitical swagger. The normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba in December 2014 came about in part thanks to Francis, who wrote private letters to President Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro that reportedly helped break the ice between the two leaders.

“Francis is not resigned to a passive vision of world affairs,” said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic organization active in conflict resolution and peace brokering, in a 2014 interview. “We must prepare for a new age of political audacity for the Holy See.”

Massimo Franco is one of Italy’s most respected journalists, a veteran reporter who has covered all of Italy’s political figures of the late 20th century. He believes that Francis is potentially even more crucial a political actor than John Paul II, who mobilized the solidarity movement and set the dominoes in motion that led to the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. “By virtue of being Polish, John Paul was hugely important for the fate of communism and for the reunification of Europe,” Franco said in 2014. “As the first pope from the developing world, Francis is important for every major issue facing the world today: poverty, the environment, immigration and war.”

While Francis clearly wants to deploy whatever influence he can to promote peace, the pontiff is selective about how, and how often, he wades into conflicts.

His first real test came over Syria. In August 2013, after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was believed to have carried out a sarin chemical attack on opposition areas near the capital, Damascus, Western leaders began trying to foster public support for the use of military force. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye,” while President Barack Obama put Congress on notice that he was weighing a “limited, narrow” attack.

As the first pope from the developing world, Francis feels a special responsibility to listen carefully to what he calls the “peripheries,” the places outside the usual Western centers of power. That summer, he was therefore determined to consult Syria’s Christian leadership before reacting. Christians are an important minority in Syria, composing about 10 percent of the population of 22.5 million. The majority is Greek Orthodox, followed by Catholics, the Assyrian Church of the East and various kinds of Protestants. The leaders of those churches told the pope, both in writing and during face-to-face encounters in Rome, that forcing Assad from power was a recipe for disaster.

As they saw it, if Assad fell, Islamic radicals would most likely fill the void—the choice for Syria is not between a police state and a democracy, but between a police state and annihilation. Most Syrian Christians recognize that Assad is a thug but believe that the alternative is even worse. That judgment was confirmed in the summer of 2014, when forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant proclaimed a caliphate in northern Iraq, driving tens of thousands of Christians and minority Yazidis from their homes and beheading a pair of American journalists and a British aid worker.

Francis has made clear that the crisis in Syria is a deep concern. He used his first Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and the world”) message on Easter Sunday 2013 to invoke prayer “for dear Syria . . . for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.”

“How much blood has been shed!” Francis said that day. “How much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?”

In private, Francis stressed during meetings with the Vatican’s diplomatic team that he wanted updates from religious orders and other Catholic groups on the situation on the ground in Syria and told his brain trust that he planned to oppose expanding the conflict in Syria in every way he could. The Vatican swung into action, even dispatching anti-war messages through the pope’s Twitter account.

Although Syria was not the only crisis percolating, Francis felt a special urgency about getting involved because of the precedent of Iraq.

At the time of the first U.S.-led Gulf War there were an estimated 1.5 to 2 million Christians in Iraq. Although they were second-class citizens under Saddam Hussein, they were basically secure. Hussein’s most visible international mouthpiece, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, was himself a Chaldean Catholic. Today, up to 400,000 Christians are thought to be remaining in the country, but many believe the real number is lower, as Islamic radicals have had a free hand in targeting the Christian minority. Francis was determined not to stand by while another Christian community in the Middle East suffered the same fate.

Looking back at John Paul II’s vain efforts to stop the Iraq offensive in 2003, which included dispatching personal envoys to both Sadaam Hussein and President George W. Bush in February and March of that year, Francis felt the intervention had been too political. It failed, in Francis’s eyes, to draw on what’s most distinctive about the papacy as a global force: its spiritual capacity. So Francis opted to do something only a religious leader could do: he called a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Sept. 7, 2013, inviting the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, as well as all women and men of goodwill, to help him storm heaven with prayer.

When darkness fell in Rome that evening, Pope Francis stepped out into St. Peter’s Square to preside over a five-hour prayer service designed specifically for the Syria campaign.

The Vatican estimated the global television audience for the service to be in the hundreds of millions. Thousands of Catholic parishes and other venues staged their own prayer services that day too.

It’s not clear how much credit Francis can claim for halting the initial rush to declare war against Assad. Before Francis stepped out into the square that evening, support for Western strikes in Syria was already beginning to erode. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron had already lost a vote in the House of Commons seeking support to join the U.S. in military action, and French President François Hollande was softening his earlier bellicose rhetoric. Nonetheless, the pope’s stance was given wide play in the Arab media, and when he visited the Middle East in May 2014, Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan brandished signs thanking the pontiff for “saving our country.”

In June 2014 Francis made an even riskier and more audacious diplomatic foray: an invitation to the presidents of Israel and Palestine to pray for peace in the Vatican, in an effort to revive the stalled peace process.

The invitation was a result of Francis’s May 2014 trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, the region known to Christians as the Holy Land. The visit crystallized Francis’s reputation as a pope of surprises, because it was punctuated by moments that veered off script and left the pope’s advisers scrambling to keep up.

The shocks began on May 25 when Francis called on Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. Afterward, the pontiff was scheduled to proceed to Bethlehem’s Manger Square to celebrate mass for the city’s dwindling Christian population. His route for the short drive took him immediately next to the massive 26-foot-high barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, known as the “security fence” by Israelis and the “apartheid wall” by Palestinians. At a certain point, and with no advance warning to anyone, Francis asked his driver to stop and pull over. There was a moment’s delay as his security team scrambled to get into position and then the pope got out, walked over to a portion of the wall where “Free Palestine!” had been graffitied, and paused for about five minutes of silent prayer. At the end, Francis placed his hands on the wall and leaned in until his forehead came to rest, then made the sign of the cross. It became the most powerful visual of the trip and was almost universally taken as a gesture of solidarity with Palestinian suffering.

While it was happening, a visibly flustered Vatican spokesman, an Italian Jesuit named Fr. Federico Lombardi, was madly thumbing his BlackBerry. Lombardi knew that the stop at the wall was political dynamite and was desperately trying to invent a nonpartisan way to frame it. Later that day, Lombardi told reporters that Francis wasn’t taking sides but was simply expressing a biblical lament. “The pope thinks like a prophet,” Lombardi said. “He imagines a day when a wall won’t be necessary to keep these two peoples apart. This was not a statement about the present political situation.”

In a sense, Lombardi and other Vatican officials trying to spin the stop at the wall lucked out, because two hours later the pope supplied an even more startling storyline when he announced that he had invited both Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him for a prayer for peace “in my house.” Both leaders swiftly accepted the invitation, and the date was set for June 8.

In the run-up, the Vatican did everything it could to lower expectations. “Anybody who has even a minimum understanding of the situation would never think that as of Monday, peace will break out,” said Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, a Franciscan priest based in the Middle East who organized the event. The pope’s lone ambition, he said, was to “open a path” that was previously closed.

Peres and Abbas arrived separately at the pope’s residence at the Domus Santa Marta, where each had a brief private moment with the pontiff. Francis and his guests were then joined by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, with TV cameras capturing the four men exchanging embraces and kisses. They proceeded to the Vatican gardens, chosen as the setting because they contain no obvious Christian symbolism, and took part in a service that featured scriptural readings and prayers for peace from Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Francis’s message was brief but forceful. “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” he said. Only the tenacious, he argued, “say yes to encounter and no to conflict; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities; yes to respect for agreements and no to acts of provocation.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the peace prayer seemed to carry three layers of significance. First, it pioneered a new channel of backdoor diplomacy under the cover of religious piety. Second, it solidified a Vatican recipe for making prayer with followers of other religions theologically acceptable. Whenever popes staged such events in the past, there was always blowback from traditionalists who grumbled that such exercises promote the idea that all religions are equal, amounting to a sort of New Age sacrilege. This time, there was no single moment of joint prayer but rather separate prayers for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Organizers insisted that the leaders were not “praying together” but instead “coming together to pray.” Third, the fact that Francis invited Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople to join the summit has ecumenical importance, because it signifies that it wasn’t just a papal undertaking but a broader Christian project. It also suggests that in the future the pope will look to build ecumenical coalitions behind his peace initiatives.

By now, Francis has demonstrated how he wants to engage the world as a peace pope. He approaches conflicts in a uniquely spiritual fashion. He wants to rely on the resources of faith—prayer and fasting, invocations of the sacred texts of the world’s great religions, and popular devotions and religious observances. In his eyes, it’s not only the appropriate way for a pope to exert his influence, it’s also good politics. Many of the world’s bloodiest conflicts have a clear religious subtext, which means that a spiritual leader can engage them in a fashion that no secular diplomat could.

The Francis brand of diplomacy is premised on personal relationships. American Catholic writer David Gibson refers to this one-on-one style as the “Francis doctrine,” citing the pope’s remarks immediately after his return from the Holy Land that peace is not mass-produced but “handcrafted” every day by individuals.

This artisanal approach runs through the pope’s peace efforts. Francis felt emboldened to invite Peres and Abbas because he had established a personal rapport with both leaders during previous encounters in the Vatican. He brought Skorka and Abboud along to the Middle East not just because they’re well-established points of reference in interfaith dialogue but because they’re old friends. He has set up Bartholomew I of Constantinople as his geopolitical partner not just because he’s a prominent Orthodox leader but because the two men clearly like and respect each other. In the future, it’s reasonable to expect that Francis will pick where to deploy his political capital in part based on where he has developed personal ties.


Excerpted from THE FRANCIS MIRACLE: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen Jr., published by TIME Books, an imprint of Time Home Entertainment Inc.


TIME Vatican

Pope Says There’s ‘No Future for the Young’ If Elderly Aren’t Respected

Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on March 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Massimo Valicchia—NurPhoto Pope Francis attends his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on March 4, 2015 in Vatican City, Vatican.

“A society where the elderly are discarded carries within it the virus of death"

Pope Francis urged crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday to show respect for the elderly, saying people will be judged by how they treat their older counterparts.

“Where the elderly are not honored, there is no future for the young,” Pope Francis told the 12,000 followers who attended his weekly address, Vatican Radio reports.“A society where the elderly are discarded carries within it the virus of death.”

The 78-year-old Argentine pontiff denounced the lack of care with which people treat their elders, even as life expectancy has increased. “If we do not learn to look after and to respect our elderly, we will be treated in the same way,” he warned. “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.”

[Vatican Radio]

TIME isis

There Is a Real Threat to the Pope From ISIS, Says Vatican Security Chief

But the papal residence's police have no knowledge of any specific plot

The commander of the Vatican’s security forces acknowledged the existence of a real threat to Pope Francis from ISIS, but said there is no indication of a planned attack on the Catholic leader.

“The threat exists,” Domenico Giani told Italian state publication Polizia Moderna, reports the Catholic news website Crux.

Giani is the inspector-general of the Corpo della Gendarmeria, the police unit that protects Vatican City. “At the moment, I can say that we know of no plan for an attack against the Vatican or the Holy Father,” he said.

ISIS explicitly mentioned Italy and its Christians as a potential target recently, calling it “the nation signed with the blood of the cross” in a video that featured images of 21 Egyptian Christians beheaded this month. The Islamic militant organization also warned of its proximity to Italy, saying its forces are “south of Rome” in Libya.

Four months ago, ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq also featured Vatican City’s famed St. Peter’s Square on its cover with the headline “The Failed Crusade,” depicting the terrorist group’s flag flying over the piazza’s central obelisk.


Read next: Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Knocked for ‘Mexicanization’ Remark

Pope Francis addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking Saint Peter's square during his Angelus prayer on Feb. 22, 2015 at the Vatican.
Tiziana Fabi—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis addresses the crowd from the window of the apostolic palace overlooking Saint Peter's square during his Angelus prayer on Feb. 22, 2015 at the Vatican.

The Vatican said he meant no offense

The Vatican said Wednesday that Pope Francis “absolutely did not intend to offend the Mexican people” when he appeared to express concern that drug trafficking was making his native Argentina resemble Mexico.

Over the weekend, the Pope wrote in an email to Argentine lawmaker and friend Gustavo Vera, “Hopefully we are in time to avoid Mexicanization,” referring to the country’s drug trade, the Associated Press reports. After Vera published the email on the website for his organization, the Alameda Foundation, Mexico formally complained that the Pope was unnecessarily “stigmatizing Mexico” despite the country’s efforts to battle drug cartels there.

In response, the Vatican sent Mexico’s ambassador an official note and said the Pope’s choice of words were taken from a informal, private email that merely borrowed language Vera himself had used as lawmaker battling Argentina’s own drug trade.

“The Pope intended only to emphasize the seriousness of the phenomenon of the drug trafficking that afflicts Mexico and other countries in Latin America,” Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said. “It is precisely this importance that has made the fight against drug trafficking a priority for the government.”


TIME conflict

Pope Francis Condemns ISIS Killing of Coptic Christians

Andreas Solaro—AFP/Getty Images Pope Francis leads a mass on February 15, 2015 at St. Peter's basilica in Vatican.

'The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out'

Pope Francis on Monday condemned the killing of 21 Coptic Christians hostages in Libya by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to a Vatican Radio report.

“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out,” he told a delegation from Scotland on Monday. “If they are Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it is not important: They are Christians. The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ.”

Read More: Beheading of Coptic Christians in Libya Shows ISIS Branching Out

The hostages, believed to be laborers from Egypt, are now “martyrs,” Francis said.

The Libyan extremist group, which swears fealty to ISIS, released a five-minute video Sunday showing militants with knives killing 21 people wearing orange jumpsuits on a beach.

Egyptian authorities confirmed the authenticity of the video, and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi launched air strikes against targets in Libya hours after vowing to avenge the deaths.

TIME faith

Balloons Replace Doves as the Vatican Symbol of Peace

Vatican Pope
Greogrio Borgia—AP Colored balloons released by children fly next to a statue at the end of the noon Angelus prayer recited by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Jan. 25, 2015.

After doves released last year were attacked

Children visiting the Vatican released balloons instead of doves Sunday in a ritual that serves as a gesture of peace.

The change follows an incident last year when doves released together by children and Pope Francis were attacked by two other birds, a crow and a seagull, the Associated Press reports. The episode created unwanted attention for the Pope, who is named for animal lover Francis of Assisi.

“Here’s the balloons that mean, ‘peace,'” Pope Francis said Sunday as children released the balloons. Pope John Paul II began the tradition of releasing doves to acknowledge efforts for peace worldwide.


TIME faith

Pope Francis Surprises Again: 20 New Cardinals, None from USA

Pope Francis Attends His Weekly Audience In St Peter's Square
Franco Origlia—Getty Images Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the end of his weekly audience on Nov. 19, 2014, in Vatican City

There is only one English speaker in the group

Pope Francis announced his new picks for Cardinals on Sunday, and the lineup continues to diversify the top leadership in the Catholic Church.

Francis selected 20 new Cardinals from 18 countries — not one is from the U.S., and only one is from the Vatican bureaucracy. These Cardinals, Francis said in his Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, show that the Church of Rome and the particular churches across the world are connected by “indissoluble links.”

Selecting Cardinals is one of the most important choices a Pope makes. Cardinals are the Catholic Church’s senior leaders, lead the largest dioceses, and are the church’s highest-ranking advisers. Most importantly, Cardinals under the age of 80 vote to select the Pope. Pope Paul VI set the limit of Cardinal electors at 120, and Francis’ new picks will push that number to 125.

Francis, once again, showed that he wants this top church leadership to reflect the changing global Catholic population and priorities. Seven of the new cardinals come from Europe, five from Latin America, three from Asia, three from Africa and two from Oceania. Three countries — Burma, Cabo Verde and Tonga — will each have a Cardinal for the first time. The only English speaker in the group is Archbishop John Dew from New Zealand, and the only Vatican official in the group is the Moroccan-born Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who leads the Vatican’s Supreme Court. The last time the U.S. did not receive a Cardinal for two years in a row was nearly four decades ago.

Sunday’s move is another play in Francis’ efforts to reform the Roman Curia, and not just geographically. In mid-February, he will call all the Cardinals to the Vatican for a two-day meeting “to reflect on the orientations and proposals for the reform of the Roman Curia.”

The 15 new Cardinals under the age of 80 and eligible to vote for the next Pope are:

  • Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura
  • Archbishop Manuel José Macario do Nascimento Clemente, Patriarch of Lisbon (Portugal)
  • Archbishop Berhaneyesus Demerew Souraphiel, C.M., of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
  • Archbishop John Atcherley Dew of Wellington (New Zealand)
  • Archbishop Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona-Osimo (Italy)
  • Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi (Vietnam)
  • Archbishop Alberto Suárez Inda of Morelia (Mexico)
  • Archbishop Charles Maung Bo, S.D.B., of Rangoon (Burma)
  • Archbishop Francis Xavier Kriengsak Kovithavanij of Bangkok (Thailand)
  • Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento (Italy)
  • Archbishop Daniel Fernando Sturla Berhouet, S.D.B., of Montevideo (Uruguay)
  • Archbishop Ricardo Blázquez Pérez of Valladolid (Spain)
  • Bishop José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán, O.A.R., of David (Panama)
  • Bishop Arlindo Gomes Furtado of Santiago de Cabo Verde (Archipelago of Cape Verde)
  • Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi of Tonga (Island of Tonga)

The five additional honorary Cardinals — Archbishops and bishops emeriti, who are over the age of 80 and therefore unable to vote in papal elections — are:

  • José de Jesús Pimiento Rodríguez, Archbishop Emeritus of Manizales (Colombia)
  • Archbishop Luigi de Magistris, Major Pro-Penitentiary Emeritus
  • Archbishop Karl-Josef Rauber, Apostolic Nuncio
  • Luis Héctor Villaba, Archbishop Emeritus of Tucumán (Argentina)
  • Júlio Duarte Langa, Bishop Emeritus of Xai-Xai (Mozambique)

The new Cardinals will be elevated formally at the Vatican on Feb. 14. Pope Francis will then have appointed a total of 31 cardinals.

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