People's Popebrings winds of change

It takes a certain influence to become a fashion icon, though many aspire. Pope Francis certainly has not aspired but he has succeeded, according to Vogue a fortnight ago. The magazine reported that the new pontiff's humility and sobriety have wooed some of the most notable designers away from their ostentatious aesthetic. "It's a whole new spirit in Rome," said Fendi co-designer Silvia Venturini Fendi.

It takes a certain influence to become a fashion icon, though many aspire. Pope Francis certainly has not aspired but he has succeeded, according to Vogue a fortnight ago. The magazine reported that the new pontiff's humility and sobriety have wooed some of the most notable designers away from their ostentatious aesthetic. "It's a whole new spirit in Rome," said Fendi co-designer Silvia Venturini Fendi.

"This is evident when we have a new pope going back to real Christianity, which lately was far from the church. Women are thinking and dressing more ethically. This pope is what we needed."

It's yet another, somewhat left-field example of what is being called "the Francis effect". The Argentine Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio, elected Pope in March, has brought winds of change that are sweeping the globe, inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church, and even restoring some of its tarnished credibility.

Mick Kelly, the Bangkok-based Australian who heads the UCA news service, calls Francis a cross between the Dalai Lama and McKinsey's, the efficiency experts whom Francis has consulted. "He recognises that without outside influence the church won't change. So he is bringing in management consultants, but at the same time he is all sweetness and compassion."

What is so refreshing, Kelly says, is that the Pope embodies what the hierarchy has long lacked: pastoral sensitivity and awareness of what the issues away from the headquarters really are.

Melbourne Jesuit Andy Hamilton has summarised Francis' appeal in the online magazine Eureka Street: "His constant description of himself as the Bishop of Rome rather than Pope, his preference for simplicity of life, dress and liturgy, his immediate contact with ordinary people as human beings and not simply as members of a religious or ethnic group, his concern for the poor, his conversational forms of teaching and listening, and his focus on the example of Christ are the antithesis of churchiness and clericalism."

He has struck a chord with a series of gestures, most minor in themselves but speaking volumes. Francis is changing everything while changing nothing.

The most recent example this week is his comment on homosexuals, in which he said, "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?" Asked about the gay lobby inside the Vatican, Francis said the problem, if it existed, was not that they were gay but that they were a lobby. On allegations that a priest he appointed as delegate to the Vatican Bank used to cruise gay bars, he said he had found no evidence. But if the priest had sinned and confessed, he must be forgiven. "When the Lord forgives, he forgets," the Pope said.

Francis said nothing that hinted at any change in doctrine or approved homosexual practice, which Catholic teaching forbids. The vital contribution was his tone, and the implication that there is nothing sinful in the homosexual orientation, which could have a seismic effect on gays in seminaries and Catholic workplaces.

As Thomas Reese noted in the National Catholic Reporter: "The Pope made it clear that there is no room for homophobia either in the church or society. But if I had said [as a priest] what he said 24 hours before he said it, I would have been reported to the archbishop."

Francis' brilliant communication skills and symbolism might seem stage-managed, except that it is exactly how he lived before becoming Pope - living in a small apartment, cooking for himself, taking the bus to work.

The symbols began in the first moments after his election on March 13, when he appeared on the balcony of St Peter's and asked the multitude below to pray for him. He then dismissed the papal limousine and returned to his Vatican hotel in the minibus with other cardinals. Next morning the 76-year-old pontiff popped into his previous hotel to pay his own bill and carry his own bags. He has shunned the papal apartment for a modest two rooms at the Vatican hotel.

He dramatically broke tradition for the Easter foot-washing ceremony in a prison by including Muslims and women. He visited the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa and prayed for the 20,000 boat people thought to have drowned trying to flee to Italy in the past two decades. He missed a concert in his honour to tell papal nuncios (his ambassadors) that he wanted pastors, not princes, as bishops from now on. He mingles constantly with the faithful, heedless of the nightmare that this practice gives his security staff.

At the just-concluded World Youth Day in Rio, he visited addicts in hospital and a Rio slum, including a spur-of-the-moment visit to a family there. Twice, audiences of 3 million flocked to hear him at the Copacabana beach, leading the mayor to rename it "Pope-a-cabana".

On the plane back to Rome, he held an impromptu press conference, standing at the front holding a microphone like a genial stand-up comedian. Looking at the newspaper photographs, one half-expected him to start crooning Moon River. But it was unprecedented - not many world leaders will spend 80 minutes being grilled by journalists, unmediated and unscripted, with no topic out of bounds.

He took questions on such problems as the Vatican bank scandals, the alleged gay lobby at the Vatican, Vatileaks, why he doesn't call himself Pope, and even the content of the black leather bag he took on the plane - his razor, diary, book of hours and a book on St Therese of Lisieux. Surprised by the interest, he joked: "Anyway, there was no nuclear bomb in it."

If his impact was immediate - not only the humble were galvanised, but within days luxury-loving Vatican cardinals starting dressing and dining more simply, and taking taxis - it has continued to swell. He has built a huge reservoir of goodwill, and - echoing Princess Diana's 's popularity - is often called "the people's Pope".

A recent opinion poll in Italy gave him an approval rating of 85 per cent (96 per cent among Catholics), with 9 per cent against (6 per cent didn't know). US commentator Bill McGarvey wrote in May that researchers had found a seismic shift among young Christians who felt their parents' faith focused too heavily on politics and the culture wars, rather than the Gospel message about poverty and justice.

To those who complain that, despite his inspired touch, it's all symbols rather than action so far, Sydney theologian Neil Ormerod replies the symbols are the change. It has significantly changed the whole atmosphere of the church around the world, says the Australian Catholic University professor. "The church's identity is more than just doctrine. Many people feel they can say things they would have been fearful about before."

The remarkable thing, Ormerod says, is that the cardinals appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI elevated him. In pre-conclave sessions he made it explicit that he thought the church needed a new direction, and they must have agreed. He spoke of the church being narcissistic, self-referential, inward-looking, and that it was better to move forward and accept mistakes rather than stay still out of fear.

"He has a very forward-looking agenda in terms of engagement with the world, whereas under Benedict there was a pool of suspicion. I think he has significant things planned. If he stays for eight years, which God willing he will, then he will replace half the voting cardinals, and that will have significant change for the next pope and his agenda."

He has appointed two commissions - an eight-member clerical one of a cardinal from each continent, including Sydney Archbishop George Pell, and another commission of lay experts - to advise him on overhauling the Vatican bureaucracy.

But Cardinal Pell dampens overenthusiastic expectations, warning that "it takes time to put together appropriate solutions even when many of the problems are easily and quickly identified. What is important is that the changes are effective and bring improvement, and this will take time."

Asked if anything Francis had done has surprised, excited or disturbed him, the cardinal says he is rarely surprised, excited or disturbed except by the occasional article in The Age.

"He is a man of integrity, faith, an older Jesuit rigorously formed intellectually, personally and spiritually in the strict regime of those days," Pell says. "Seeing the social inequalities in many parts of South America on a scale unknown in Australia helps Australians understand his radical commitment to the poor, to bringing Christ to them and to standing with them."

An indication of the strength of goodwill for Francis is that victims groups have not criticised lack of action on clerical sexual abuse. They have approved his rhetoric - the Vatican said in April he had told a top deputy he wants decisive action to reach out to victims, prevent future abuse and punish perpetrators - but there has been nothing since.

In fact, the only people in the church unimpressed with the Pope's first four months are the traditionalists, who felt deeply comfortable with Benedict and fear their concerns are being dismissed.

One popular American blogger complained about the new Pope's disdain for finery and for the pomp of office. "It's just too hard to warm to someone who feels the things you find important and meaningful to be trivial frivolities," she wrote.

But to everyone else, the improvement in church morale is little short of miraculous. In February, as Benedict announced his resignation, the church was racked by crisis after crisis. As veteran Vatican watcher John Allen wrote recently, before the election, religion journalists were all writing about the Vatican leaks, the Vatican bank, child sex abuse and other problems. These stories have not gone away, but they have been replaced as the dominant narrative about the church, which is now "wildly charismatic Pope takes the world by storm".

For the Catholic Church, it may be a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.