ROME - From the moment he was introduced to the huge crowds waiting for a new pope in the rain at St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis has been a surprise. People gasped when his name was called out. He was 76, seemingly another rigid conservative, not the younger, dynamic figure many Catholics had hoped for.
Now six months later, the surprises keep coming, including the pope's new remarks that the church risked becoming a "small chapel" overly fixated on sexual morality and should instead offer a broader, more inclusive message.
Francis is challenging the status quo of the Roman Catholic Church so determinedly and so unexpectedly that Vatican watchers are debating whether this is merely a change of tone, as many had thought at first. Some now think the pope may be making a deliberate effort to shake up the Vatican governing hierarchy, known as the Curia, and prepare the ground for a more fundamental shift in the direction of the church.
"I think we are looking at major changes," said John Thavis, a longtime Vatican observer and author of "The Vatican Diaries." "There is a lot of disorientation inside the Roman Curia. They used to feel they were in charge. Right now, they know they are not in charge."
The latest unexpected jolt from Pope Francis came in an interview conducted with a Jesuit journalist and released Thursday in Jesuit publications around the world. Francis, himself a Jesuit, chastised the church's narrow focus on controversial social issues and called instead for a more merciful and less judgmental church. He had already sent out earlier signals, declining to live in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, chiding prelates for driving fancy cars and announcing that church properties should be used as shelters for refugees.
Francis did try to temper the impact of his remarks on Friday, telling an audience of Catholic gynecologists that abortion was a symptom of our "throwaway culture" and urging them to refuse to perform the procedure.
But there seems little question that Francis wants to change the papal conversation. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, often seemed engaged in an angry verbal jousting match with secularism and modernity, usually delivered through formal encyclicals or speeches that, to many Catholics, felt like a personal rebuke. The church seemed like "a rigid institution dictating impossible norms to follow, an overly severe mother," said Lucetta Scaraffia, a scholar of Catholicism in Rome.
By contrast, Pope Francis has made impromptu telephone calls to people who have written him letters seeking help, while also thriving on socializing with other priests and laypeople. He is assuming the tone of the parish priest, many analysts say, recognizing that people struggle daily with issues of conscience and that the church, rather than shake a finger, must offer a broader message of comfort and healing. Many analysts have seized on an analogy cited by Francis in his interview: the church as a hospital in a battlefield.
"People have been wounded in a war over secularization," said Ms. Scaraffia, a history professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza. "He's saying: 'Let's look after the wounds. That's more important than winning the war.' "
The deep challenges confronting the church became evident after Benedict's stunning decision to resign early this year. Allegations of mismanagement were erupting in the Vatican, and accusations of impropriety shook the Vatican bank. Many cardinals blamed the problems on the secretive administrative body, the Roman Curia, and wanted Benedict's successor to usher in major reforms that would decentralize power.
Pope Francis has already signaled his independence from some of the Vatican's traditional channels, and his biggest governance move, as yet, has been the creation of an advisory group of eight outside cardinals to help him usher in Curial reform. But in his interview, he hinted that bigger changes could be coming, including possible structural changes to the conferences of bishops, known as synods. He also pointedly warned that certain departments in the Curia, when functioning poorly, risk "becoming institutions of censorship."
Analysts also noted how Francis specifically stated that the Curia should be at the service of the church, the bishops and the pope - not vice versa. But rather than first outlining specific governance reforms and instituting major personnel shifts, Francis instead seems intent on articulating his vision for the church to build public support for changes yet to come.
"First, you have to get consensus based on the force of the vision, and then you find the men," said the Reverend Pierangelo Sequeri, dean of the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy. "I don't think the cardinals expected him to act in that way."
Francis, who previously had been Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina, was selected by a peer group of cardinals widely regarded as theological conservatives. Many analysts, as well as conservative Catholics, have noted that despite the striking differences in his young papacy, Francis remains a theological conservative who is not advocating doctrinal change.
Indeed, Francis on Friday offered a strong anti-abortion message during a meeting with Catholic gynecologists. "Every child that isn't born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord," he said.
But the pope seems intent on not being ideologically pigeonholed. In his Jesuit interview, Francis said that in his younger days, while overseeing the Jesuit order in Argentina, he was often quick-tempered and came under legitimate criticism. "My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative," he said.
But later, when he became archbishop of Buenos Aires, he changed his style, he recalled. He consulted regularly with bishops and met several times a year with councils of priests, inviting discussion and debate. "But now I hear some people tell me, 'Do not consult too much, and decide by yourself,' " he said in the interview. "Instead, I believe that consultation is very important."
Indeed, some analysts believe Francis' desire to broaden the appeal and message of the church reflects his background in Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church is competing for followers with evangelical Protestant movements. Appealing to the global south was considered an important factor in selecting a new pope, while several cardinals spoke publicly about the need for a change agent to fix the problems inside the Vatican.
Alberto Melloni, a prominent Vatican historian, said he thought that the cardinals, despite their conservatism, were aware that Francis would make big changes - especially since most of those same cardinals had previously elected Benedict and bore some responsibility for the shortcomings of his papacy.
But Mr. Melloni added that even if Francis remained a doctrinaire conservative, the decision to stop speaking in terms of doctrine and "nonnegotiable values" was very significant, given tight alignment in many countries between the church and political conservatives.
"The political consequences of these changes are very strong and serious," said Mr. Melloni, director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, a liberal Catholic research institute. "The Holy Father has offered a sort of new freedom to the church in the political scene."
Sister Carol Zinn, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella group of American nuns that came under harsh doctrinal scrutiny under Pope Benedict, said Francis' approach to the papacy - listening to laypeople and practicing the Jesuit discipline of gradually discerning direction - indicated that he intended to make more than tonal changes.
"What we're seeing is an incredible change in the atmosphere," she said in an interview. "And when you have change in the atmosphere, it's amazing what kinds of things can unfold. Because of the commitment he has to a discerning way of life, I think we are going to see changes, because discernment brings changes."
Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.