How will Pope Francis ‘avoid breaking under the strain’?

“In the Curia, I would die.” Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires said this eight years ago, after the last conclave reportedly made him a runner-up to Benedict. Now he is Pope Francis — not just in the Curia, but at the head of it — and the burdens of the job he faces must weigh heavily upon him. He faces a growing church in the South, a shrinking one in the West, an administration riven by scandal and infighting, and a damaged corporate reputation, thanks to continuing sex scandals and revelations of financial impropriety.

No wonder he seemed, when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica Wednesday night, somber and overwhelmed.

But the veil has now dropped between Bergoglio and the world. Last week, he was a man; now, he’s a mystery, protected by thousands of years of tradition and ritualized Vatican mores. The billion people whom he leads can now only imagine what he’s thinking. Modern interpreters will offer hypothetical translations of his words and thoughts, and future biographers will work to find the truth behind them. Surrogates will do his work for him, as Pope Sixtus V explained in 1588, so that “he, the holder of the key of all this power, may share the huge mass of business and responsibilities . . . and by God’s helping grace avoid breaking under the strain.”

One way to penetrate the pope’s current mind-set is to look at his actions and not his words. Paul Piff is a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, a specialist in reading facial expressions and body language to discern emotion. I asked him to watch the video of Pope Francis’s appearance at St. Peter’s and to interpret his inner thoughts. “Visibly tentative and uncomfortable with the position he’s been put in,” Piff said, “maybe even burdened. His posture is somewhat deferential, the tightening of his lips, and chin down, a little submissive. . . . His breathing is also visible . . . perhaps a result of nervousness or at least feeling overwhelmed.” When the Pope starts to speak, Piff adds, he raises his eyebrows, “a signal of sympathy, interest and compassion.”

Another guide to a pope’s inner life is to look back at the past. There have been many men who may have felt as Francis may feel now, allergic to the politics of Rome; some resisted becoming pope, fearing the weight of the job. In the 19th century, Leo XII asked to refuse his election, citing his poor health. He became pope anyway, and went on to consolidate enormous power under his control, not endearing himself to his subjects. Upon being elected pope in 1978, John Paul I reportedly said to the cardinals assembled in the Sistine Chapel, “May God forgive you for what you’ve done.” He died a month later, some say from the pressure of the job.

In 1963, Paul VI was elected in the middle of the Second Vatican Council, after the death of the beloved Pope John XXIII. Then, as now, the church hierarchy was riven by dissent over questions of the church’s embrace of modernity. How much should the Roman Catholic Church accede to fast-evolving sexual ethics, the increasing role and power of women outside the home, the egalitarian worldview of so many of its faithful? Paul, a centrist, died feeling misunderstood — “Am I Hamlet? Or Don Quixote?” he wrote in 1978 — having both reformed the Mass and written “Humanae Vitae,” the church’s condemnation of birth control. Like Francis, Paul was a great advocate for the poor. He agreed to wear the papal tiara at his inaugural ceremony, but afterward, he sold it, giving the proceeds to charity.

Paul took Peter’s seat with a full awareness of the anguishing loneliness of his job. “The post,” he wrote in his diary six weeks after his election, “is unique.”

“It brings great solitude. I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. . . . Jesus was alone on the cross. . . . My solitude will grow. I need have no fears; I should not seek outside help to absolve me from my duty; my duty is too plain: decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others, even when it seems illogical and perhaps absurd. And to suffer alone. . . . Me and God. The colloquy must be full and endless.”

At least two things are known about Francis. He, like Paul, believes deeply in the comfort of a spiritual relationship with God, which transcends human company. “This is the Christian calling,” he once said. “To go and give witness. You can’t convince anybody. The encounter occurs. You can prove that God exists, but you will never be able, using the force of persuasion, to make anyone encounter God. This is pure grace.”

Perhaps his sense of grace will allow him to transcend the burdensome politics of Rome.