ROME - Cardinals are traditionally called “princes of the church,” but Pope Francis insisted on Sunday they’re not part of a “royal court.” Interviews with several cardinals this week suggest the pope backs up those words with his personal example.
As he approaches the one-year anniversary of his election, it’s becoming steadily clearer that Francis is the most laid-back pontiff in recent memory, and perhaps of all time.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.
In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.
Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.
“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Dolan said members of the council had been briefed that the pope was coming, but were told that he didn’t want anyone downstairs making a production out of his arrival. He came up by himself, with no aides or security personnel, carrying a briefcase.
“This is a man for whom warmth and informality is very natural,” Dolan said.
That lack of pretense was on display again this past week, when all the cardinals of the world took part in two days of meetings with Francis. In the past the pope arrived for such sessions only after all the cardinals were in place, who would snap to attention when the pope entered the room.
This time, however, Francis showed up early and chatted with cardinals as they arrived, so nobody stood up to greet his entrance.
That wasn’t the only innovation. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston, Texas, described a surprising run-in.
“We went down for the coffee break in the morning, and I’m in the crowd at the bar,” DiNardo told the Globe. “I turn around, and it’s the pope! He’s in line to get coffee himself, no flunkies surrounding him.”
“You’re both shocked and embarrassed, but this is how he wants things,” DiNardo said. “He’s told people this is what he wants.”
Dolan had a similar encounter the morning the meetings started.
“I turned around when I was checking my coat in, and there was the pope standing in line behind me to check his coat in,” he said. “I have to say, it was kind of stunning.”
Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec, Canada, said Francis flashes the same informal style at the Domus Santa Marta, the modest bed and breakfast on Vatican grounds where the pontiff has chosen to live.
“I’m staying at the Santa Marta with my parents this week, and one morning at breakfast the pope came in, waved at everybody in the dining room and then went to his table,” the 56-year-old Lacroix said, adding that his parents were thrilled just to be in the same room.
“Then Francis gets up and comes to greet them, at our table,” he said. “He was so relaxed it was unbelievable. Afterwards I almost couldn’t find my mom, because she was floating up on the ceiling!”
Lacroix, who’s never worked in the Vatican, said some members of the old guard must be dumbfounded.
“I’m sure it’s very scary for the people around here,” he said. “They must be saying, what in the world is going on?”
Yet Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., said there’s nothing to fear in Francis’ informality.
“He’s the 265th successor of St. Peter, so his style is secondary to his reality,” Wuerl said.
“He’s still the rock,” Wuerl said, referring to the traditional Catholic belief that the original Peter was the rock upon which Christ built the church.