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Bottom-line question: ‘Will it last?’

“Yes, yes,” the wife snapped. “But when can we get a copy from local bookshops?” She had flagged the full-page ad of the just-published Time magazine book: “The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church.”

The author is veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr. of the Boston Globe. He called the shots right when the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who chose the name Francis. “Buona serra,” the first Jesuit ever to become pontiff began. He startled the people in the crowd by asking for their blessing first.

Journalists around the world, who had earlier handicapped papabiles from Brazilian Cardinal Scherer to Canadian Cardinal Ouellet, frantically surfed the Web. All but one: Allen. He had published, much earlier, a profile of the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires.

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Ease off, we counseled the wife. We showed her the e-mail from our son Francis, a Delta Airlines pilot based in the United States. “Sorry. There was a mix-up at Federal Express. They delivered Allen’s book, which we addressed to you in Cebu, back to us. We asked them to resend. And you should be getting it soon.”

Writes Allen: “Not every pope with a game-changing dream succeeds in transforming the Church.” Francis enthusiasts want his papacy to succeed in reforms. His detractors fear that the longer it goes on, the harder to roll back “mistakes.”

Both camps ask the same bottom-line question: “Will it last?”

If one means substantive alterations in Church teaching—for instance, acceptance of abortion—the answer is no. Francis does not intend to upend the catechism.

But if one sees reorientation of Catholicism toward the “geographical and existential peripheries and the heart of the gospel,” then it’s possible; his imprint will outlive his stint on the Chair of Peter, be it long or short.

His reforms range from dethroning Italians as the Vatican’s financial power brokers, choosing moderates as opposed to traditionalist hard-liners, greater transparency, etc. “New laws make it virtually impossible for any future pope to return to the status quo ante,” Allen adds.

Today’s Francis revolution is being felt at the level of in-the-trenches application of doctrine. His Church “sees people living in less-than-ideal ways as souls on the path to redemption, rather than enemies who need to be excoriated.”

How long will Francis be able to keep going at his current pace? Will he set a term limit on himself, as Pope Benedict XVI did? What if his papacy is blind-sided by an unforeseen crisis?

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Writes Allen: “Francis’ imprint will depend on how ready Catholics are, at the grass roots, to carry it forward, even when Francis himself is gone.

“The key point to understanding Francis is this: beneath his simple exterior lies the mind of a brilliant Jesuit politician. He is spontaneous but he’s never naive.” He knows where he wants to go.

Yet not every pope with a game-changing dream succeeds in transforming the Church. There are five ways a pope can institutionalize change: 1) He can summon an ecumenical council, as Pope John XXIII did with Vatican II. 2) He can appoint bishops who’ll translate his vision into practice. 3) He can change the law of the Church. 4) He can issue teachings on a new path. 5) He can create new structures.

“A bishop is the closest thing left on the planet to a feudal lord.” Canon law provides that they don’t need reelection. So they stay in their jobs until they reach the retirement age.

In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI appointed bishops known for a strong concern for social justice. In America, that outlook was most associated with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Those “Bernardin bishops” are still a force in the US bishops’ conference today, more than 35 years after the death of Paul VI.

What accounts for the sharp contrast between yesterday’s Cardinal Bergoglio and today’s Francis?

He carried into the Vatican his commitment to the poor, relighting missionary fires, and a life of gospel simplicity. He took the bus and lodged in a spartan apartment.

In Argentina, he rarely appeared in public or in formal interviews. “Nobody came away saying he turned the world on with his smile.”

Allen notes what Maria Elena Bergoglio, the Pope’s only surviving sibling, made of the change. She jokingly replied: “I don’t recognize this guy!”

“You’re not the man I knew in Buenos Aires. What’s happened to you?” asked a cardinal-friend. According to the cardinal, this was Francis’ answer: “On the night of my election, I had an experience of the closeness of God that gave me a great sense of interior freedom and peace. And that sense has never left me.”

St. John Paul II was convinced that on May 13, 1981, the Virgin Mary changed the flight path of an assassin’s bullet in St. Peter’s Square to preserve his life. And it also was the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. The pope believed that Mary was the reason he survived—to forgive the assassin.

Among other things, that conviction explains why it was always implausible that John Paul would resign, no matter how frail he grew near the end. He believed that the Virgin Mary wanted him to continue. He was never going to wake up one morning and just call it quits.

It seems unlikely that Francis will heed calls to rein in his freewheeling public persona in any significant way, given that it’s not the product of a PR war room but, rather, what he believes he experienced as an act of God.

Whether his papacy is truly “miraculous,” in the sense of boosting the long-term fortunes of Catholicism in some world-changing way, remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that as Francis views it, his is a mission with a miracle at its core.

Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.

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TAGS: John Allen Jr., papacy, Pope Francis, Vatican
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