Don't be distracted by the glossy magazine devoted entirely to the doings of one 77-year-old man, all dressed in white. Beneath the soaring hope and the celebrity superpope hype surrounding Pope Francis in the first year of his papacy, there's a gritty reality: Rebuilding a church of 1.2 billion souls -- even if he were two decades younger, with two fully functioning lungs -- is a staggeringly difficult task.
In that first year, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has brought his humble Argentine lifestyle to Rome. The world knows he carries his own bags, pays his own bills, makes his own phone calls to people around the globe, stands patiently in line to get coffee, and washes the feet of prisoners, including Muslims and -- gasp! -- women. It's common knowledge that Francis wants a church that is poor, that walks among the poor, rolls up its sleeves and comes to their aid. And he wants bishops who don't aspire to live like princes, but like servant leaders.
But he faces daunting obstacles. You don't have to prowl the Vatican to observe what Francis is up against. Just drive to New Jersey. There, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark has been putting a new $500,000 addition on his already grandiose weekend/retirement home. This contrasts sharply with the poverty in his archdiocese, and Myers took a richly deserved drubbing in the media. Yet the archbishop, who wants to be called by the formal "your grace," appears not to have noticed a steep fall from grace by another big-spending prelate.
Last fall, stories appeared about Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the bishop of Limburg, Germany. At the same time as Pope Francis was living modestly in the Casa Santa Marta, a Vatican guesthouse -- not in the gilded isolation of the Vatican's papal apartments -- the bishop of Limburg was spending $43 million on his residence. So the pope summoned him to Rome for a chat. The result: The "bishop of bling," as he became known, is now living in a Bavarian monastery -- his future uncertain.
Both big spenders became bishops under Pope John Paul II, who will be canonized next month. John Paul's personal holiness is unquestionable, but many Catholics believe that he appointed too many bishops who are more princely than pastoral. You won't hear Pope Francis criticizing his predecessor, but the kind of bishop he wants is very different from many of those John Paul chose.
As a start toward getting the pastoral bishops he wants, Francis has added new members and not reappointed some hard-line incumbents of the Vatican's Congregation of Bishops, which makes recommendations to the pope on appointment of bishops. But fixing the congregation alone won't change the global profile of bishops very soon. Unless he's willing to remove current bishops ahead of the normal retirement at age 75, he'll have to wait for vacancies. The calendar is not on his side. He was elected pope at age 76, and he's missing part of one lung, the result of illness decades ago. So he's not going to have nearly as much time as John Paul did -- more than a quarter century.
Then there's the Vatican Bank, where news hasn't been good. For example, Msgr. Nunzio Scarano, an influential Vatican official, was accused of plotting to smuggle millions of dollars from Switzerland to Italy to help wealthy friends evade taxes -- and of using his accounts in the Vatican Bank to launder money. Oddly, in the Gospels, Jesus gave no details as to how to run the Vatican Bank. So that has been left to mere mortals, who have been all too grubbily human.
So, last month the pope appointed the tough, autocratic Australian Cardinal George Pell head of a new Vatican fiscal secretariat. Pell will look closely at the Vatican Bank and help Francis decide what to do with it. The pope has listed closing it as an option. That's probably too much to hope for, but Pell seems unlikely to tread softly in fixing the secretive bank, established in 1942 to aid the church's charitable work.
For those of us who root fiercely for Francis to enjoy good health and a pontificate long enough to rebuild the church -- as his namesake in Assisi worked to do -- the potential reaction to his feather-ruffling is worrisome. Now that he's going hard after the Vatican Bank, who knows what nefarious characters have used it for sleazy purposes, and might now see Francis as a mortal threat to their schemes?
Other problems facing Francis include, of course, the clergy sexual abuse scandal. As wildly popular as he is, victim advocates criticize him for not doing enough. In fact, he's had to work at tamping down expectations in general. Women want a greater role in the church, for example, but he has taken no bold action. Some had hoped he'd name a woman cardinal (cardinals don't have to be priests), but his first group of new cardinals is like all those in the past -- all male.
Despite some unhappiness from both right and left, the pope's legend continues to grow: Time magazine's 2013 person of the year, the cover of Rolling Stone, and a new Italian publication called Il Mio Papa (My Pope). As hard as he has tried to downsize the papacy and be small and humble, his very humility has made him such a celebrity that Francis has called this superman image "offensive."
In other words, it's not going to be easy for Pope Francis. Let's just pray that there will be a 10th anniversary of his papacy, and we'll look back and be stunned by how much this humble superstar has changed the church he loves.