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Pope marks first year far from Rome’s crowds

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Reuters

Pope Francis. File picture: Stefano Rellandini

Vatican City - Pope Francis will spend the first anniversary of his election in a spiritual retreat, far from the adoring crowds in Rome and the tension within the Church hierarchy that have defined the last year.

In keeping with Francis's tendency to eschew much of the pomp and ceremony associated with his role, Thursday's anniversary is not being marked in any official way.

The 77-year-old will not even be in the Vatican, having left on Sunday for a retreat in the woods located in the Castelli Romani, a picturesque area on the south-eastern outskirts of Rome.

In the manner that has come to define his papacy, Francis made the short trip by coach in the company of 83 members of the Curia, the Church's governing body.

The retreat is a regular fixture in the Vatican calendar and is intended to mark Lent, the solemn pre-Easter period that is associated with self-denial, penance and repentance.

As such it represents the perfect alternative to what would have inevitably been a media circus had Francis opted to mark the anniversary in public.

The pope's extraordinary popularity has helped increase church attendance around the world but it has also fuelled the growth of a cult of personality that Francis has denounced as inappropriate.

“Portraying the pope as a kind of superman, a type of star, it seems offensive,” he recently told Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

More than anything, the pope's first year in office has been marked by his apparently sincere determination to maintain the kind of simple lifestyle the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio has had throughout his career as a priest.

The 77-year-old lives simply in a three-room apartment rather than a papal palace. The golden cross and red cape of his predecessor have been left unworn and he is reported to regularly phone an 80-year-old widow who recently lost her son. “She is happy and I get to be a priest,” he said of those calls.

That attitude has helped to fuel his popularity around the world. He has more than 12 million Twitter followers lapping up his Tweets in nine languages. If retweets are counted, it is likely more Twitter users are reading what he has to say than those by Barack Obama.

Who exactly Pope Francis is remains a subject of much discussion.

Allegations that he is a “Marxist” pope may be exaggerated, but there is no doubt that he is no fan of globalisation, which he once described as a “way to enslave nations”.

In that sense, he seems to be very much a pope for these times of uncertainty and economic insecurity.

Acclaimed for having transformed the image of a Church assailed by a seemingly endless string of scandals, Francis has also made waves with his determination to reform the Vatican's structures and initiate new approaches on contentious issues such as the Church's attitude to divorce and homosexuality.

Church sources say traditionalist Cardinals are resisting Francis's lead at a time when cost-cutting measures are causing disquiet within the Vatican walls. Papal staff are fearful for their posts, already having had to accept cuts in their income because of a crackdown on overtime.

Andrea Tornielli, of Italy's La Stampa newspaper, knows Francis personally and acknowledges that his way of leading the Church has encountered some resistance.

“I do not believe groups have been formed. But his style, everything that can seem as desacralising the pontiff's role, the lack of distance and his accessibility, are a problem for some,” said the journalist, who also runs the Vatican Insider website.

The unique situation created by Francis's predecessor Benedict XVI's decision to retire has led to speculation that the Vatican could easily slip into two rival camps headed by, respectively, the current, reforming pontiff and the conservative Emeritus Pope.

Tornielli says such theorising is wide off the mark, citing an email Benedict sent him last month describing the suggestions as “absurd speculation” and voicing his “profound friendship” for the man who succeeded him. - Sapa-AFP


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