VATICAN CITY — He still goes by “Bergoglio” when speaking to friends, seems reluctant to call himself pope and has decided to live in the Vatican hotel rather than the grand papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace.
It might seem as if Pope Francis is in a bit of denial over his new job as leader of the world’s 1.2-billion Catholics. Or perhaps he’s simply changing the popular idea of what it means to be pope, keeping the no-frills style he cultivated as archbishop of Buenos Aires in ways that may have broad implications for the church.
The world has already seen how Francis has cast aside many trappings of the papacy, refusing to don the red velvet cape Benedict XVI wore for official occasions and keeping the simple, iron-plated pectoral cross he used as bishop and archbishop.
On Thursday, his belief that a pope’s job is to serve the world’s lowliest will be on display when he washes the feet of a dozen young inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome. Previous popes have celebrated the Holy Thursday ritual, which re-enacts Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet before his crucifixion, by washing the feet of priests in one of Rome’s most ornate basilicas.
Such moves hint, even at this early stage, only two weeks into his papacy, at an apparent effort by Francis to demystify the office of pope.
Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t sign his name “Pope Francis,” ending his official correspondence simply “Francis.”
To those closest he is still Bergoglio, and this week, Italian state radio broadcast a voice mail he left wishing a friend Happy Birthday. “It’s Bergoglio,” the pope said, using the surname he was born with.
Even on Day One, Francis didn’t acknowledge he was pope.
Speaking on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica after his election the night of March 13, Francis told the tens of thousands gathered there that the cardinals’ task during the conclave had been to “give Rome a bishop.”
And bishop of Rome is the title he has emphasized repeatedly ever since — not vicar of Christ, or any of his other official titles.
“I do think there is something about trying to reduce the awesomeness, the grandeur and majesty of the papacy,” said John Allen Jr., Vatican columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. “Part of this is just his personality. He’s never liked pomp and circumstance.”
Indeed. Even after he became Argentina’s top church official in 2001, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio never lived in the ornate church mansion that Pope John Paul II stayed in when visiting, preferring simple rooms in a downtown building, warmed by a small stove on frigid weekends when the heat was turned off. He did his own cooking and rode the bus to get around town.
In that same vein, Francis announced this week that he wasn’t moving into the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace and would stay instead in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence, the antiseptically clean, institutional-style hotel where he and the 114 cardinals who elected him pope were sequestered during the conclave.
Calling the hotel home, Francis indicated that he wants to live in a community with ordinary folk, not the gilded cage of the Apostolic Palace.
He will eat in the common dining room as he has for the past two weeks, and celebrate 7 a.m. Mass in the hotel chapel as he has each day, inviting Vatican gardeners, street sweepers, hotel workers and newspaper staff to attend.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the decision to stay put in the hotel had been taken “for now.”
“We’ll see how it works,” he said.
In one concession, Francis did move in recent days from the hotel’s cramped Room 207, where he had stayed as cardinal, into Room 201, the larger papal suite, which has a study and sitting room to receive guests. The furnishings are a step up from the simple fare of the rest of the hotel: dark wood armoires and a bed with a matching headboard carved with an image of Christ’s face.
Francis’ initial refusal to move into the hotel’s papal suite is perhaps understandable, given the reluctance with which he accepted the job in the first place.
On Wednesday, the Vatican revealed what Francis said in the Sistine Chapel when he was formally asked if he accepted the outcome of the vote. “I am a big sinner. Trusting in the mercy and patience of God, in suffering, I accept,” he answered.
The decision not to take up residence in the Apostolic Palace might also signal a desire to keep his distance from the dysfunctional Vatican government Francis has inherited. One of his major tasks will be to rid the Vatican bureaucracy of the mismanagement, petty turf battles and allegations of corruption that were revealed in leaks of papal documents last year.
Francis does go to work each day at his “office” in the Apostolic Palace, where he meets with various Vatican officials. He uses the ornate Clementine Hall for larger audiences, such as his first formal addresses to representatives of the world’s religions and the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See.
In his March 20 audience with religious leaders, Francis sent an important signal about his view of the papacy and its relationship with other Christians. He addressed the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, as “my brother” — a fraternal nod to a church that split from Rome 1,000 years ago and has remained separated in part over disputes about the primacy of the pope.
To make that message abundantly clear, Francis’ chair was on the ground — the same level as all the other religious leaders — and not on a raised platform. Two days later, when Francis greeted diplomats accredited to the Holy See, his chair was up on a platform.
“To have a simpler view, less grandiose sense of the trappings of the papacy might be saying, `I want to be able to relate to you at a different level,”’ said Anton Vrame of the Greek Orthodox archdiocese in the U.S.
Francis’ gestures, choices and emphasis were clearly an indication of his personality and the simplicity for which Jesuits are known, Vrame said.
“Is it a further simplification of the papacy that we’ve seen over the years? Potentially. It remains to be seen,” he said.