Why you should care
Because one of the most influential institutions on earth is changing.
So far as anyone knows, Pope Francis is far from dead. And while he has indicated no wish for eternal papacy, he is also showing no signs of pulling a Benedict XVI and bailing — however much the world longs to pop corn and watch the next conclave. But many pope handicappers are putting their collection dollars on Carlos Osoro, the new Vatican appointee to the Madrid Archdiocese. They call him the Spanish Pope Francis. And no wonder — the two are priestly doppelgängers, with the same complexion, glasses and blissful stare.
But perhaps some of the mystique surrounding Don Carlos, as they also call him, is self-manufactured. He is liberal and chummy with his followers, even by warm Spanish standards, and (gasp!) he ignores protocol. Por ejemplo: During the oft-pompous processions in the Almudena Cathedral adjacent to the Royal Palace, he is the only of two dozen priests who smiles and throws benevolent Catholic gang signs to his flock, while the rest carry themselves regal and solemn. All of this in Madrid, a spot that has historically set trends for Spain and Latin America and influenced the direction of the church.
For those unfamiliar with the Roman Catholic Church, all of this is a big deal. There’s the historical context: Catholicism’s long-held arm’s-length distance from its followers. And then there’s the contemporary context: Today, many criticisms of the church point to that same aloofness as it relates to modern society. Of course, Pope Francis — who hand-picked Osoro for the job in ultraconservative Madrid — has been the world’s religious sweetheart precisely for bridging some of those gaps, through both subtle populist gestures and public comments on traditional Catholic values.
The Lord has mandated me to build this culture, not to reject anyone.
Arguably, 69-year-old Archbishop Osoro did it before it was cool. Decades ago, he was a struggling schoolteacher — with a girlfriend! — in rural Spain. He made it to the church only at 28, a decided latecomer. His major philosophy: He personally believes wholeheartedly in most Catholic tenets, which hold that both abortion and gay marriage are no-no’s, but isn’t in favor of imposing them or proselytizing. Instead, he welcomes all to the church — gay people, atheists, the divorced, the anti-clerical left and pro-abortion individuals. In fact, he has supported prosecuting a pedophiliac priest and, just months into his new job, stripped support for a massive annual church march in favor of banning abortion in Spain. He isn’t pro-women-as-priests but is open to letting women have more responsibility. “The Lord has mandated me to build this culture, not to reject anyone,” he reflects to OZY.
Osoro’s values came to him early. Xabier Pikaza — a theologian, popular columnist and former priest who renounced his vows to live with his female partner — was Osoro’s university professor nearly four decades ago and says Osoro “is part of a new movement to return the church to its roots, opening up an important but uncertain horizon.” When we accompanied Osoro to an anti-abortion center in downtown Madrid, the conservative crowd there quietly criticized him, frowning at his methods. When asked about him, Maria Luisa Rodriguez, a retired political science professor, described his approach as overly “spiritual” and said she would rather Osoro tackle the concrete realities in their country … like banning abortion.
Osoro brings it back to Jesus: “Love changes people’s heart more radically than wielding a sword.”
Of course, it won’t be easy for Osoro to deliver in the home of some of the most ultraconservative Catholic movements (think Opus Dei). As Pikaza warns, “He alone cannot change the church.” All he can do, he says, is help the church become a more engaging institution and to slowly convince his fellow clergy that his methods are sound.
And then there is the larger issue for the Vatican: How do you fill those empty churches? Osoro is unfazed and may not even succeed in building the church here, thanks to his philosophy of taking it one person at a time, which sparks impatience. “It’s imperative that this not become a long-term process,” says Jesús Bastante, a religion columnist and the author of the biography Carlos Osoro: The Pilgrim. Pope Francis’s Man in Spain. For instance, he worries that despite the size of the church in Spain, many aren’t baptized.
When asked if he is pope material, Osoro says, “That’s preposterous!” The Vatican officially laughed down the question too. He has a window of 11 years — papal candidates must be under 80. But of course, the most important prerequisite is a job opening, which Pope Francis in March hinted might come sooner than many expected: “four or five years … even two or three.”
Perhaps for now, the biggest changes we’ll see from Osoro’s time are subtle. He dresses himself, no need for the aides. He hops on WhatsApp in his car. He always pays or gives to beggars from his own coin purse, even if aides trail after him like so many au pairs. He jokes. He swears.
And Carlos Osoro is reflective, familial. He wears a simple gold ring with a cross that his two brothers gave him when he became bishop, along with a silver cross that belonged to his mother. For now, he’s living in an old folks’ home, not the Archbishop’s Palace, which his predecessor has not vacated. He doesn’t mind — except that his roommates don’t let him pray as often as he would like. “Every other minute, they ask me if they can give me a kiss,” he laughs. “I say, ‘As many as you want.’”