TIME Books
March 8, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

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.

Pope Francis enthusiasts desperately want his papacy to succeed in overhauling Catholicism, while detractors fear that the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to roll back what they see as mistakes. Both camps tend to ask the same bottom-line question: “Will it last?” That is to say, will Pope Francis be a flash in the pan, a symbol of unrealized possibilities? Or will he permanently change the inner life of the Catholic Church and the way it presents itself to the outside world?

To some extent, the answer depends on how change is defined. If one means substantive alterations in Church teaching—for instance, acceptance of abortion; gay marriage; allowing couples to use contraception; and welcoming women priests—then the answer is no. Francis has made it clear that he’s not a doctrinal radical and does not intend to upend the catechism (the official collection of Catholic doctrine). On the other hand, if one sees change as a reorientation of Catholicism toward the political center, the geographical and existential peripheries and the heart of the gospel, then it’s possible Francis will leave an imprint on the Church that will outlive his own reign, however long or short it turns out to be.

Francis has moved aggressively to shuffle personnel in key positions. He has moved toward greater internationalization (dethroning Italians as the Vatican’s financial power brokers) and chosen moderates as opposed to traditionalist hard-liners. He has also started to appoint bishops around the world who share his views, notably the new archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich. Francis has acted with equal vigor on the legislative front, decreeing, among other things, a sweeping overhaul of the Vatican’s financial operation in the direction of greater transparency and accountability and issuing a series of new laws that make it virtually impossible for any future pope to return to the status quo ante.

The Francis revolution is being felt at the level of in-the-trenches application of doctrine rather than the doctrine itself. The pope is trying to encourage the most generous, merciful and flexible application possible, making it clear that his Church wants to include rather than exclude and sees people living in less-than-ideal ways as souls on the path to redemption rather than enemies who need to be excoriated. While the tension between rigor and acceptance is a constant in Catholic life—and no pope can fully alter the balance—there’s no question that in a remarkably short time, Francis has emboldened those who accent tolerance and discouraged those who want to battle with the outside world.

To what extent that new approach endures depends on a host of variables. For one thing, it may hinge on how long Francis is able to keep going at his current pace and to what extent he’s able to curb his tendency to overextend himself. It may also depend on whether he imposes a term limit on himself, following the example of Benedict XVI and resigning from the papacy in order to make way for a new approach. It depends, too, on which side of his soul prevails: the go-it-alone pontiff who believes he was elected to lead, or the pope committed to decentralization who is reluctant to overrule a body of bishops that is not always eager to follow him. It also depends on whether he continues to amass political capital or whether his papacy is blindsided by an unforeseen scandal or crisis. Perhaps, most fundamentally, the shelf life of Francis’s imprint will depend on how ready Catholics at the grass roots around the world are to embrace it and carry it forward, even when Francis himself is off the scene.

The key point to understanding Francis is this: beneath his humble, simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician. Francis is spontaneous and often unscripted, but he’s never naive. Behind his seemingly impulsive and extemporaneous flourishes is a clear conception of where he wants to go and how to get there. His supporters believe he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure that his vision for Catholicism is more than a beguiling but largely unrealized dream. Yet it’s worth recalling that not every pope with a game-changing dream succeeds in transforming the Church.


There are really only five ways a pope can institutionalize change in the Catholic Church, not just for the duration of his papacy but to reorient it in a decisive way for years to come. First, he can summon an ecumenical council, as Pope John XXIII did on Jan. 25, 1959, when he announced Vatican II. Second, he can appoint bishops who share his vision and who will translate it into practice in dioceses and parishes around the world. Third, he can change the law of the Church to make his way of doing things not merely a pious example but a binding requirement. Fourth, he can issue teachings that set the Church on a new path. And finally, he can create new structures in the Church as a permanent expression of a particular priority.

Francis’s mission is likely to come to fruition through the bishops he appoints, the laws he issues and the structures he creates.

The Catholic system is such that the bishop is the closest thing left on the planet to a feudal lord. The Code of Canon Law makes the bishop the supreme authority in his diocese, and although bishops are ultimately subject to the authority of the pope, in reality it’s impossible for Rome to exercise close supervision over the thousands of prelates around the world. Even when the Church tries to impose checks and balances, those limits are often more nominal than real. For example, Church law requires that a bishop have the approval of a diocesan finance council for certain types of expenditures, but it also allows the bishop to appoint the members of that council. If a bishop is so inclined, he can just pick people likely to rubber-stamp whatever he wants to do.


A pope can fire a bishop if he has a serious complaint about his performance, either by directly removing him from office or by informing him that his resignation is expected. Francis has already removed German bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van-Elst (the so-called “bling bishop”) from the diocese of Limburg in the wake of an overspending scandal. Considering the number of bishops in the world, however, such interventions remain rare. Everything about the culture of the Catholic Church assigns the benefit of the doubt to a bishop, and for the most part bishops have the power to govern their diocese as they see fit.

Bishops don’t have to stand for reelection, so they stay in their jobs until they either reach the retirement age of 75 or are sent to a different bishopric. But even when that happens, Catholic theology holds that “once a bishop, always a bishop,” and in those relatively rare cases when a pope ships a bishop off to a lesser assignment or forces him to resign prematurely, he remains a member of the College of Bishops with all its rights and privileges. As a result, bishops can carry forward a particular pope’s agenda well after that pope is off the scene. In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI appointed a series of bishops known for reforming attitudes and a strong concern for social justice, an outlook that in the U.S. was most associated with Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Those “Bernardin bishops” are still a force in the U.S. bishops’ conference today, more than 35 years after the death of Paul VI.


Pope Francis is hands-on with regard to most aspects of governance, and as a veteran churchman he knows how important the selection of bishops is in moving the Church in his direction. Francis laid out in black and white the sort of bishop he prefers in a June 2013 speech to his nuncios. He said that the first criterion for candidates is that they must be “pastors close to the people.” In the most celebrated phrase of the speech, Francis insisted that bishops must not have “the psychology of a prince.” Francis told the nuncios that if a priest seems to want to become a bishop, that’s a strong indicator that he probably shouldn’t get the job.

It’s still too early to assess how successful Francis will be in finding men to lead the Church who fit this profile. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in a 2014 interview, “Let’s face it, we’re still in April of the baseball season with this pope,” suggesting that there’s no real point in checking the standings so early.

What’s clear is that Francis takes the task seriously. For the most important choices around the world, Francis gets personally involved.

In the U.S., Francis tapped 65-year-old Cupich, previously the bishop of the small diocese of Spokane, Washington—and a figure who appeared on almost no handicappers’ list—to take over the critically important archdiocese of Chicago. Chicago is one of a few large dioceses around the world whose leaders help set direction for the Church in their regions, and it has long been a symbol for deeper realignments. During the 1980s and 1990s, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin embodied the moderate, reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The transition to Cardinal Francis George embodied the stronger emphasis on Catholic identity in the later John Paul II years, with resistance to the inroads of secularism the defining cause. George helped make the defense of religious freedom a signature cause for the American bishops, crystallized in the tug-of-war with the Obama White House over contraception mandates imposed as part of health-care reform. Both Bernardin and George served as president of the U.S. bishops’ conference at different points, and both were seen as representing the broader spirit of their era in the American Church.

In Cupich, Francis found another defining prelate to take over in Chicago. On a personal level, Cupich is regarded as humble and open, a pastor who “carries the smell of his sheep” that Francis has often said he wants in a prelate. He is clearly a moderate, upholding Church teaching on abortion, contraception and gay marriage but, like Francis, shunning strong rhetoric on those matters. Cupich has been identified with the wing of the American bishops that has tried to steer the Church down a less confrontational path. He tends to place special emphasis on the social gospel—concern for the poor and for social justice. In 2011 Cupich dismayed some of the most aggressive pro-life forces in Catholicism when he discouraged priests and seminarians from taking part in an anti-abortion protest in Spokane. Cupich is also seen as an adept manager and an internal reformer. In his role as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, he helped lead the American Church’s efforts to recover from child sexual abuse scandals.

Francis was personally involved in Cupich’s selection, making phone calls to a wide variety of sources in and around the U.S. Church and consulting American prelates when they came to Rome.

Adding it all up, the kind of man Francis seems to look for in key posts is someone orthodox in doctrine but committed to dialogue and outreach; a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously; who emphasizes concern for the poor and those at the margins; and who gets out of the office and into the streets.


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.


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