A tale of two leaders

Things have changed in Italy, from Renzi selling the ministerial cars on eBay to the Pope persuading an ecclesiastical panjandrum into a life of impoverished contemplation. More of the same, please

Pope Francis: A breath of fresh air?
Tim Hedges
On 21 April 2014 21:19

No one would describe Italy’s youthful prime minister, Matteo Renzi, as having an easy job. He has to institute massive constitutional change, he must modify an absurd electoral system, and he is faced with the task of ending the practice of the two houses of the Italian Parliament being co-equal and the country ungovernable.

His main job, though, is with the economy, and it must be hard to know where to start.

Italy has the richest regions in Europe and it has the poorest. In parts of the north, unemployment is less than 5 percent (in booming Britain it is 7 percent) whereas in parts of the south it is three times that, with youth unemployment drifting up past 40 percent. Italy’s economy has shown no proper growth for years.

But Renzi has got his head down and instituted some changes, albeit small (he has only been in office two months). This month he is delivering an extra €80 a month to poorer families, by way of tax deductions. This will be paid for by cost savings, particularly in defence. We don’t have the details yet but it doesn’t bode well for the F-35 fighter programme.

And yet with all there is to do, all the possibility of disaster, he can look a few miles east, the other side of the Tiber, where the top job looks even trickier.

The pope looks after sixteen times as many people as the Italian Prime Minister. He is the face of the Church, the voice of what is right and what is wrong and what can never be tolerated. He is the evangelist, shoring up the faith of the doubting, attracting the lapsed and the non-believers to his banner.

The pope is the doctrinal head of the faith, issuing bulls and encyclicals on where it stands on any topic in a rapidly changing world. The pope is the diplomatic head of state, meeting with foreign presidents and monarchs to establish international policy. And the pope is the leader of a small country whose every action is of massive import.

And yet for much of their day Papa Bergoglio and Matteo Renzi are doing exactly the same thing: fighting the vested interests in their countries, and stopping the ruling class from feathering their own beds at the expense of the poor.

On Maundy Thursday, as the Church was preparing for the most important festival of the Christian year, with 150,000 in the Piazza for mass, Bergoglio asked an aide what was all the banging next door.

In the cleverest move by a recent pope, he had refused to occupy the splendid papal apartments, and made his home in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a sort of boarding house for visiting clergy. It was already known that he had lived simply in Buenos Aires, cooking his own meals and using public transport, and here he was maintaining that style, living in a small apartment of 70 sqm, the size the average Italian lives in.

Next to the Domus Sanctae Marthae is a magnificent old building, the Palazzo San Carlo, and the noise was the knocking together of two already decent sized apartments for Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the newly retired (sacked) Secretary of State or, effectively, Prime Minister of the Vatican.

His new gaffe would be 700 sqm, ten times the size of the pope’s. Its roof terrace alone, at 100 sqm with splendid views over the Vatican, would be half as big again as the pope’s entire residence.

Bergoglio has already had a tough time with a German bishop who spent tens of millions on a palace, and now this. He keeps his own life simple, not because he is embarrassed by wealth, but because he believes that is how a priest should live. St Francis of Assisi, from whom he took his name, gave up the life of a wealthy merchant’s son to help the poor.

Tarcisio Bertone does not seem to have fitted well into this ideal. He would seem to want the life of a Prince of the Church, and hasn’t been worldly enough to realise that things have changed. In his homily to the clergy, the new Francis raged against priests who were ‘unctuous, sumptuous and presumptuous’.

Things certainly have changed in Italy, from Renzi selling the ministerial cars on eBay to the pope persuading an ecclesiastical panjandrum into a life of impoverished contemplation.

This was needed. More of it, please.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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