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A year in, has Pope Francis really changed the church?

9:29 AM, Mar 9, 2014   |    comments
Pope Francis walks in procession for Ash Wednesday prayer service in Rome on March 5, 2014. (Photo: Andrew Medichini, AP)
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VATICAN CITY (USA TODAY) -- For Vatican watchers, it was immediately apparent the 266th pope was different.

Introduced to the faithful for the first time after the conclave that elected him, the new Pope Francis wore a simple white cassock adorned only by a plain metal cross he kept from his days as the "bishop of the slums" in his native Argentina. He stood, at once dazed and humble, before uttering a simple buona sera - Italian for "good evening" - before bowing his head and asking the excited throng in St. Peter's Square for their blessing.

"It was an astonishing statement," recalled Father Alistair Sear, a retired church historian, who a year ago watched the events from London. He recalled that eight years earlier, a new Pope Benedict XVI presented himself clad in red velvet and brocaded silk, wearing a large gold cross encrusted with jewels. "The tone for the papacy was set by Francis that first night."

The humble and open-minded tone has been carried forward without fail through the first year of Francis' papacy this Thursday, from one of his first acts, the highly symbolic washing and kissing for the feet of detainees at a juvenile detention center near Rome, to one of his most recent, calling the mythology growing around him as a kind of Superman "offensive." I am "a normal person," Francis said in a recent interview.

In between, he said that if atheists followed their conscience and acted morally, they could go to heaven; he blasted the "tyranny" of capitalism; and when asked about gays, the pontiff famously asked, "Who am I to judge?" He was named person of the year by Time magazine, and, according to bookmakers, is a favorite to win the next Nobel Prize for peace.

"We all wanted change and reform," said Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of England. "But I don't think any of us expected so much fresh air!"

DOCTRINE IS STEADY

While there is little doubt that the image and tone of the Roman Catholic Church have changed under Francis' leadership over the past year, there have been only limited changes to church doctrine along the way. Rules governing the role of gays, divorced Catholics and women are unchanged. The powerful Roman curia, the church's main bureaucracy, remains entrenched. And while Francis has taken steps to confront chronic financial corruption at the Vatican Bank and the problem of sex abuse among the clergy, those steps have yielded little so far.

In the end, how much has really changed?

"It's stylish to say that little has changed, but I believe that Francis' style is what is making the difference," said Sandro Magister, a Vatican expert with Italy's L'Espresso news magazine. "He knows he cannot wage a frontal assault on the church's culture, and so he's conducting a kind of guerrilla war, using the force of his personality."

Rank-and-file Catholics could not be more enthusiastic about Francis' papacy. Polls show sky-high approval levels, and the term "The Francis Effect" has been coined to explain the pontiff's impact on everything from rising church attendance to the newfound popularity of various forms of the name "Francis."

"It is such a source of pride to have such a spiritual and holy man in the papacy," said Alberto Branca, a 52-year-old university administrator, in St. Peter's Square for the last Sunday before Francis' first anniversary.

Anna Maria Polli, 40, a nurse, agreed. "My faith has been renewed since Francis became pope."

THE DISSENTERS

Not everyone is happy, however. The complaints range from the amusing to the more worrisome.

Ahmed Chutani, a Pakistani souvenir seller near St. Peter's, said the new pope has been bad for business.

"He is always talking about the poor and so the poor come to the Vatican and they have no money to spend," he said. "They stop to look, but not to buy. And when they buy, they try to bargain on price and ask for discounts."

More ominously, the pontiff's reform efforts - especially those addressing the Roman curia, which has been a focus of much of the pope's in-progress anti-corruption reforms - have encountered a kind of silent resistance.

In a recent interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga said that like any revolution, Francis' reform efforts carry risks.

"I have heard people say, 'We are praying for him to die as soon as possible,' " Rodriguez Maradiaga said. "That is wicked, because such people think they are Christians."

There have always been such people, the cardinal added: "The same thing was said by the scribes who turned against the Lord."

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