LISBON, Portugal — As an ambitious up-and-coming politician, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a strategy to say or do something controversial to guarantee a front-page headline every day.
Pope Francis may be no longer up-and-coming, but his capacity for daily domination of the world's news agenda is surely drawing Sarkozy's envy these days.
In recent days, the pontiff has fast-tracked his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II toward sainthood; riled Italy's right wing by reaching out to illegal immigrants struggling to cross the Mediterranean; launched a cleanup of the Holy See's shadowy financial arm by declaring "St. Peter didn't need a bank account"; announced an overhaul of the Vatican legal code to widen criminal legislation against child abuse; and suggested Catholics who follow him on Twitter can get to Heaven quicker.
Set to generate headlines again when he travels to Brazil for his first foreign trip as pope next week — to attend the Catholic Church’s youth festival — Francis will greet crowds in an open-top car instead of his predecessor’s bullet-proof “popemobile,” part of his promise to become closer to his flock.
The Italian edition of Vanity Fair responded to Francis's hyperactive first 100 days at the head of Catholic Church by declaring him the magazine's "Man of the Year" last week, drawing praise from some unlikely quarters.
"Francis is a miracle of humility in the era of vanity," Sir Elton John told the magazine.
The singer and gay rights campaigner expressed hope that the Argentine-born pope — who was widely seen as a conservative when appointed in March — would reach out to others "in desperate need of his love" such as homosexuals and AIDS sufferers.
Elton John isn’t alone in having fallen under Francis's charm. An opinion poll last month showed trust in the Catholic Church among Italians has risen to 63 percent, up from 46 percent in January just before the abdication of Francis's predecessor Benedict XVI.
The poll, carried by the Corriere della Sera newspaper, showed Francis's personal confidence rating at 85 percent.
Asked why, those surveyed cited his spontaneous and simple language, his ability to relate to ordinary people and the attention Francis has given to the weak and the poor. Fifty-five percent of Italians said they believed he would succeed in renovating the Church.
"This is not just in Italy. There has been a worldwide change in attitudes toward the papacy since the election of Francis," said veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi, a columnist for the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. "There has been a great outpouring of sympathy not only among believers but also from people who are very secular or far from the Church."
Politi says Francis has quickly proved himself to be a consummate communicator, with a common touch and sincerity of faith that enables him to reach out to people of all classes and backgrounds.
He has also shown himself to be a canny political operator, both inside the Vatican and in the wider world.
How Francis chooses to use those talents could have profound implications for the Church’s future.
"His goal is to achieve profound change," says Politi, who has authored books on the last two popes. "He wants to reorganize the Roman Curia, the Church's central government, to slim down the bureaucracy."
Francis's reforming zeal could go further, he says, even moving toward a democratization of the Church.
"Ultimately he wants to change the character of the Catholic Church, which is organized like a monarchy with the pope as an emperor at the top. Instead he wants to change the Church into a community where the bishops are part of the decision-making process," Politi said in a telephone interview from Rome.
From the more traditionalist corners, resistance to such revolutionary moves are beginning to bubble beneath the surface. While few in the Church hierarchy have spoken out publicly, Politi says they are starting to use allies in the secular press to accuse Francis of populist and demagogic tendencies.
There was open criticism from conservatives when Francis washed the feet of woman prison inmates as part of a ceremony after his election as pope. The feet-washing is a traditional homage to Jesus's act of humility toward his disciples, but that was the first time women were included.
Francis followed that up with repeated calls for the clergy to reject earthly luxury and live simple, humble lives, including by telling priests to give up driving fancy cars.
He decided that his first trip outside Rome should be to the southern Italian island of Lampedusa to draw attention to the plight illegal migrants risking the dangerous boat journey from Africa to Europe in search of a better life. Thousands have drowned in the attempt over the years, others are held by Italian authorities in detention centers on the island 70 miles from the Tunisian coast.
Francis delivered a powerful appeal for greater understanding of the migrants' suffering that has underscored his determination to put the fate of the poor at the center of his papacy.
"In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference," he said. "We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!"
"Lampedusa was significant because it showed the pope is setting his own agenda," says Politi. "He wanted to begin somewhere where the issue is the life and the death of the poor and disadvantaged."
Although Francis' trip won praise from the United Nations and human rights organizations, it triggered a backlash from right-wing politicians in Italy who have long advocated tough action against illegal immigration.
"Preaching on religious matters is one thing. It's completely different for a state to manage a phenomenon so difficult, complex and insidious as illegal immigration," complained Fabrizio Cicchitto, a senior lawmaker with the People of Liberty party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
In Italy and other mainly Catholic countries, the Church has traditionally allied with the political right to resist reform on sensitive social issues. Although Francis has expressed conservative views opposing divorce, homosexuality or abortion, Vatican experts say he is unwilling to let them deflect from his plans for reform.
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However, sooner or later, he will be called upon to take a stance — which may well decide whether his honeymoon with liberal and secular society endures.
"It cannot be an accident that after 120 days of pontificate Pope Francis has not yet spoken the words abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage," Sandro Magister, a religion writer for the Italian news weekly l'Espresso wrote last week. "This silence of his is another of the factors that explain the benevolence of secular public opinion in his regard."