Pope Francis: the new King of Italy

In a country with little faith in politics, the 'people's pontiff' has become Italy's de facto head of state.

Much has been written recently about how Pope Francis has become a new pin-up for progressives, anti-capitalists and those who feel that the US president, Barack Obama, has disappointed the poor and downtrodden. It’s an interesting turn of events for the papacy, a hierarchical institution that normally makes the headlines for the wrong reasons: paedophilia, clerical cover-ups and its unfashionable stance on women and homosexuality.

The ‘Austerity Pope’, who shuns the traditional opulence of the role, has certainly tapped into today’s spirit of banker-bashing, non-judgementalism and inclusion (even if many Catholics rather like a pope that pontificates), but another more curious development is afoot. This is that Francis has, in all but name, become Italy‘s new monarch. In a country where politicians are abhorred like nowhere else in Europe, he is the figure most Italians look up to for guidance, inspiration and leadership.

Pope Francis made the first state visit of his pontificate last month. He travelled two miles to Italy’s presidential palace, where he told President Giorgio Napolitano of his solidarity with Italy and the challenges it faces on immigration, poverty and hard-up families. Francis also recalled his visit to Lampedusa, the island off which more than 300 Eritrean refugees drowned in October.

The Pope’s intervention after that disaster – ‘Pope Francis says Lampedusa migrant boat disaster a “disgrace”’ read a headline in the Mirror – achieved far greater global coverage than President Napolitano’s. Indeed, the Pope’s visit had its direct parallel with the visit to Santiago di Compostela by King Carlos of Spain, following a train crash there in July. Providing comfort and hope is what heads of state do, and it’s what Pope Francis basically does for Italians.

Since his election as Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio has strode the peninsula and its islands to pronounce on earthly matters. In September he visited poverty-stricken Sardinia, donning a miner’s hat to address a crowd. ‘Where there is no work, there is no dignity’, he said, in one of his many critiques of global capitalism, telling those assembled how his Italian parents also struggled when they sought to create a new life in Argentina.

He has since intervened in the scandal of toxic-waste dumping outside Naples, one of many Mafia rackets in the south of the country. Last month he telephoned a nun, one of 150,000 people who had sent him postcards showing local children who had died of cancer because of the waste. This was just the latest, headline-grabbing phone-call – in which he invites recipients to address him in the familiar ‘you’ form – to have endeared him to many.

President Neopolitano is indeed widely respected, but mostly as a dependable elder statesman. He is the longest-serving president in the history of the Italian Republic, and the Italian press often refer to him as ‘King George’ as a consequence. But Neopolitano has only been head of state since 2006, and the esteem in which he is held is proportional to the contempt in which Italians hold their parliamentary politicians.

Italian politics is mired in another crisis. Anti-political feeling is rife, even by Italian standards, as epitomised by the popular vote this year for Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Grillo is a former comedian and his party is perhaps the most apolitical and amorphous of all Europe’s populist parties today.

Last week, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was finally ejected from parliament. The Italians had tolerated Berlusconi for 20 years, largely because he offered a degree of stability. The collapse of the First Republic in 1992 had revealed a profound level of corruption and Mafia-collusion in Italian politics, so entrenched, it seemed, that despite all that was wrong and embarrassing about Berlusconi, he was a devil better than the deep blue sea.

Berlusconi may have gone but the mood remains cynical. As Beppe Grillo’s blog thundered last week: ‘I would like to be able to say that we are on the eve of the collapse of a regime. Not so. Not yet. It’s simply the end for a banal man for all seasons.’ There couldn’t be more of a contrast between Berlusconi and his bunga-bunga parties and Pope Francis, the man with a battered 30-year-old Renault 4, the man who literally embraces the diseased and disfigured. Francis arrived in an auspicious year.

‘Pope Francis understands very well the political space left empty by the greed and the incompetence of Italian parties, centre-right and centre-left.’ So Fabio Cavalera, London correspondent of Milan daily Corriere della Sera, tells me. ‘He speaks about social problems and social troubles, forgotten by the ruling class. Doing this he tries to bring again the church into the heart of public opinion.’ What about a kind of Italian monarch? ‘The Pope has been always a monarch. But it depends: what sort of monarch? Pope Francis wants to be a humble monarch, a new humble preacher of faith, being different from other greedy, high-and-mighty monarchs, both of parties and church. Common people like this sort of new evangelisation.’

Luke Coppen, editor of the Catholic Herald, agrees, albeit with qualifications. ‘Pope Francis is undoubtedly the most popular man in Italy. But there are still a few small groups of Italians he has yet to win over: the Mafia (who apparently want to kill him), Catholic traditionalists and those who are still devoted to his predecessor, Benedict XVI.’ Indeed, some are worried about Benedict’s successor, and his statesman-like role. ‘Pope Francis needs to be afraid - very afraid - of the various Italian Mafias’, warns Ivor Roberts last week in the Tablet, the British Catholic weekly. People have tried to kill the pope before, and in the 1990s, two leading judges who campaigned against the Mafia were assassinated by them as a consequence.

This pontiff’s political significance in Italy is unmatched by recent predecessors. Sure, John Paul II was a considerable political figure, but in the context of the Cold War and his native Poland. Benedict XVI also spoke out against the Mafia in Sicily in 2010, but a principal reason the German resigned was that he found Vatican politics so underhand and scheming. One doesn’t find nice, Germanic, Borgen-style politics in Rome.

This leads us to the defining factor. It was a master-stroke by the Catholic Church this year when they announced they had elected a leader from the Third World for the first time, someone who had pounded the mean streets of Buenos Aires. In truth, the Church had reinstated an Italian to the Holy See.

The Italians may have disposed of their little-loved royalty back in 1946, but they seemed to have embraced an older one. Of course, Francis is no monarch in the style of a depraved renaissance pope, or an autocratic one from the nineteenth century. He’s more a leader for our soothing, therapeutic, ‘anti-elitist’ times: one part ascetic Gandhi, one part Scandinavian monarch, and one part Princess Diana. Or, as the Daily Telegraph put it recently, ‘the people’s pontiff’.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked. He is the author of several books including Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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