VATICAN CITY — He wades into crowds without hesitation, shaking hands and kissing babies. He cracks jokes and delivers unscripted remarks, to the occasional dismay of staffers.
Four months in office, Pope Francis is engaged in what seems like a U.S. presidential campaign in reverse: Without really trying or even wanting it, he has won election to the top job. Now he’s out in the field pressing the flesh, listening to constituents and working to win hearts and minds — and (given his line of business) souls.
Francis has earned praise for his jovial manner, his evident love of people, his simple lifestyle, his commitment to the downtrodden and his determination to put a personal stamp on the papacy.
But many of his toughest decisions are to come as he seeks to set the Roman Catholic Church on a new path and to shake up the scandal-plagued, faction-ridden Vatican. Building a reservoir of public support and improving the church’s image outside the Vatican should serve him well in that mission.
Since his election here in March to replace Benedict XVI, Francis’ decisions to forgo many of the trappings of office, such as frequent use of the papal limo, and to speak up for the marginalized, including immigrants and Muslims, are genuine expressions of his personality and beliefs, analysts say.
Many Catholics, laypeople and clerics, are eager for Francis to clean up the Curia, the Vatican administration, which has seen a string of embarrassing scandals.
The Curia’s problems are rumored to be a prime reason Benedict chose to become the first pope in several centuries to step down voluntarily. Many of the cardinals who elected Francis have urged him to bring thoroughgoing reform to the Vatican.
Vatican watchers predict that Francis’ first major moves will occur after the summer — among them, a shake-up of high-ranking personnel.
Within weeks of his inauguration, the pope appointed a commission to advise him on reform. The eight members are cardinals who work outside the Curia and hail from six continents.
Followers are heartened by the pope’s crackdown at the troubled Vatican bank, which has long been suspected of money laundering.
Another papal commission has been assigned to review the bank for Francis.