VATICAN CITY — An Italian industrialist tried to curry favor by donating $100,000 worth of truffles. A Mercedes-Benz executive hoped for an audience to suggest improvements to the Popemobile. But in the final years of the papacy of Benedict XVI, others sent very different messages, desperate for the pope’s ear.
A cardinal warned that the pope’s top administrator was undermining his papacy. And two church benefactors worried that the Vatican’s governing hierarchy — known as the Roman Curia — was riddled with intrigue.
“Where is the strength in the Curia to resist the temptations of power?” they asked in January 2011, in one of hundreds of letters to Benedict that were published last year in a book that touched off the “Vatileaks” scandal of leaked documents.
This is the Vatican inherited by Pope Francis. In his first week on the job he has shown an uncommon humility, signaling a new direction for the church. Yet, changing the style of the papacy is far easier than changing the Vatican — an ancient monarchy in which the pope is treated like a king, branches of the hierarchy are run like medieval fiefs and supplicants vie for access and influence.
For decades popes have tried, and often failed, to change the Vatican. How Francis fares could define his papacy — and determine whether the church can better serve its more than 1 billion faithful.
“There have been a number of popes in succession with different personalities, but the structure remains the same,” said a former superior general of a Roman Catholic religious order, who spent more than a decade in Rome. “Instead of you transforming the structure, the structure transforms you.”
As the head of the Catholic Church, Francis is more than its spiritual leader. He is also the top box of one of the most opaque government flow charts in the world, running the last truly global empire from the world’s smallest sovereign state, which sits on 108 acres in the heart of Rome behind high walls.
While the power of the pope is absolute, the vast bureaucracy of the Vatican is powerful, too. The waning days of Benedict’s troubled papacy were marked by complaints from ordinary Catholics as well as from powerful cardinals that the Curia had become too concerned with accumulating power and unresponsive to the needs of its followers.
For Francis to change that, he must contend with power centers within the Vatican that revolve around money, real estate and the distribution of resources to foreign policy, ideology and church doctrine.