He was known as one tough pope who reigned for only five years near the end of the 16th century, during which time he ruthlessly restored order to a lawless and bandit-infested Rome and Papal States.
Though he was Supreme Pontiff for but a “blink of an eye,” Pope Sixtus (1585-1590) left a very big and deep footprint on the Eternal City and the Vatican that has endured to this very day. He financed a series of ambitious construction projects, including an aqueduct that remains intact to this day (the Aqua Felice), the rebuilding of the Lateran Palace, the completion of the dome of St. Peter’s and the erection of obelisks in front of three papal basilicas and other Roman sites.
But the most substantial achievement of Sisto Quinto (as he’s called in Italian) was the creation of the current structure of the Roman Curia. No pope in the last 431 years who has made the effort has been able to significantly alter it.
Oh, they have tried...
Paul VI (1963-78), who spent most of his priestly life in the Vatican, probably came closest of any to succeeding.
He angered many Church traditionalists and those among the Roman nobility when he stripped the Curia of many of its imperial court-like features—such as certain titles, ceremonies, regal eccentricities, etc.—following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But it quickly became apparent that the Pauline “reforms” were destined to remain only cosmetic, despite the pope’s intention to change the governing culture at the Vatican. Unfortunately, they never amounted to much more than nominal changes.
Pope Francis, who is almost halfway into his ninth year of steering the Barque of Peter and is quickly approaching his 85th birthday (in December), has made Roman Curia reform a major focus of his pontificate.
He began by instituting a new level of governance called the Council of Cardinals just one month after his election. Its purpose is to advise him on matters regarding his guidance of the universal Church and—most specifically— to help him write a new constitution for the Curia.
The document is said to be completed. But it is currently being scrutinized and amended by a team of canon lawyers the Jesuit pope trusts. It has been a long process to write what is essentially the blueprint for restructuring the Church’s central bureaucracy.
Many reform-minded Catholics have grown impatient with the project and they are even doubtful that Francis will be able to succeed where his successors (including Paul VI, whom he beatified in 2014 and declared a saint in 2018) have failed.
In contrast to Pope Paul, who was the consummate Vatican insider, Francis is a complete outsider. He is the first pope since St. Pius X (d. 1914) who never studied or worked in Rome. He is also the first member of a religious order to be elected Bishop of Rome since Gregory XVI, a Benedictine monk who reigned from 1831-46.
This has put him at a notable disadvantage. But the Argentine pope is shrewd.
He has moved slowly and methodically, strategically making one piecemeal change after another, gradually shifting the terrain inside the Vatican. The timing of the pope’s moves has generally been unpredictable, which has had the effect of keeping even seasoned Curia officials uncertain of what will come next and completely off balance.
Francis has shared drafts of the new constitution for the reformed Roman Curia with the heads of the Vatican's major departments, leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences and certain theologians. Ostensibly, the purpose for this has been to get further input and advice.
But only a few people know exactly which suggestions, if any, he has decided to incorporate in the final document. Both fans and foes of the reformer-pope suspect there will be some big surprises and major changes that were not included in earlier drafts.
The recent publication of the “motu proprio” Traditionis custodes, which basically nullified Benedict XVI’s restoration in 2007 of the Tridentine Mass, showed that Francis is not afraid to make substantial decisions that might even reverse policies instituted by his still-living predecessor.
How far, many are now wondering, will the Jesuit pope go?
It is well-known that, before undertaking major initiatives like traveling abroad, he seeks inspiration and celestial favor from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Beside a devotion to “Our Lady, Un-doer of Knots,” he has visited a side chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore nearly 90 times since the start of his pontificate to pray before the Marian icon, “Salus Populi Romani” (Protectress and Health of the Roman People).
In a chapel on the other side of the nave of that same basilica are the tombs of two popes. One is of St. Pius V (d. 1572), the man who codified the Tridentine Mass. And directly facing it is that of the earlier-mentioned Sixtus V.
I visited Sixtus’ tomb last year on August 27 for the 430th anniversary of his death and asked a church custodian if, in all the times Pope Francis has been to the basilica, he’s ever stopped here.
No, the man said, he could not recall that ever happening.
I’m not completely convinced. But even if Francis has not prayed at the tomb of Sixtus V, perhaps he should, just for a bit more inspiration as he gets ready to carry out his Curia reform.
The Romans called Sixtus “er papa tosto,” a phrase that one might liberally translate as “the tough” or “badass pope.”
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.