<i>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</i>

Illustration: michaelmucci.com

Just around the corner from where I am staying in Rome is Gammarelli, a small shop that describes itself as ''Sartoria per Ecclesiastici'' - clothing for religious orders - but the small white skullcap in the window offers the vital clue that this store is different from the several others in the neighbourhood that sell priests' vestments. This is where the Pope shops. And here in the window is another sign of the many ways in which Pope Francis is embarking upon radical change in the church he was elected to lead last March. Gone from display are the red loafers favoured by his predecessors. In their place a pair of humble black buckled brogues.

Pope Francis is renowned for having shed the luxurious trappings of the office. He got rid of the fur-trimmed velvet capes, and the papal Merc; he declined to order a new papal ring or his own set of Leone Limentani dinner plates. He does not live in the Vatican apartments, instead bedding down in two rooms at a hostel reserved for visiting priests, and he lines up with the others to get meals from the canteen (a strategy, according to Roman gossip, to avoid the risk of being poisoned by an increasingly resentful Curia).

Francis has characterised the rank careerism of the Vatican bureaucrats as ''spiritual adultery'', so they probably have cause to be nervous. Especially as they, and conservative Catholic leaders around the world, are looking increasingly out of step as Pope Francis begins to overturn old attitudes, practices, policies and even dogma.

Among those heading in the opposite direction from the Pope are Australia's two most prominent Catholics: Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his confessor, Cardinal George Pell.

Pell was still in Rome earlier this month, having met the Pope in his capacity as a member of the Council of Cardinals that Francis established to advise him in the run-up to next year's synod on pastoral challenges to the family. The group was charged with bringing the views of ordinary Catholics to Rome and it is not difficult to imagine Pell's reaction to being asked by the Pope to seek the views of Sydney parishioners on divorce, birth control, unmarried couples living together and - gasp! - gay marriage.

Pell is on record as finding no merit to reform on any of these issues - and now they are officially on the table for discussion by the Catholic Church. Abbott is similarly out of step. And not just on gay marriage.

In July, the Pope chose for his first official trip from Rome to go to Lampedusa, a tiny island in the Mediterranean that is, essentially, Italy's Christmas Island except for the fact that floods of immigrants, mostly Muslims from Africa, arrive there - rather than the trickle that ends up on our shores. There have also been many hundreds of lives lost to drowning as asylum seeker boats capsize and sink.

In stark contrast to Abbott's puerile ''Stop the Boats'' sloganeering, Pope Francis spoke of ''immigrants'' rather than ''illegal boat people'', describing how their boats ''which were vehicles of hope … became vehicles of death''. His visit and his words made Lampedusa, and asylum seekers, an issue that Europeans could no longer turn a blind eye to.

Abbott, on the other hand, asserted with breathtaking insouciance in his Christmas email: ''We are a good and generous people and I hope this Christmas we will remember everyone who is doing it tough and lend a hand where we can.'' His idea of lending a hand evidently does not extend to providing adequate medical assistance for Australia's asylum seekers, or even basic shelter on Nauru or Manus Island. Those former detainees who are permitted to live in society but not to work and who, therefore, must crowd together in accommodation now risk being returned to detention if callous neighbours find these living arrangements offensive.

Pope Francis' idea of lending a hand was to have an archbishop give out phonecards to the crowd of immigrants who watched the pontiff celebrate Mass on the upturned wreck of a fishing boat.

Francis is of course the first Jesuit Pope, so it would be reasonable for Abbott, who was educated by the Jesuits, to feel a particular affinity with him and possibly even be guided by his values. James Carroll points out in his illuminating profile of the Pope in the current issue of The New Yorker that after Vatican II, the Jesuit order redefined itself around the concept of ''faith that promotes justice''. While we of course demand secular government in Australia, many of us would welcome a bit more justice in the Abbott government's approach to many policies. Think National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski changes, disability pensions, asylum seekers.

Carroll quotes the Pope as saying, ''How I would like a church which is poor and for the poor''. Pope Francis appears to be redefining the wider Catholic, as opposed to simply Jesuit, concept of faith to centre on justice (rather than retribution), and that includes love and respect for those, such as gays, Jews, Muslims and others who were in effect spurned by previous pontiffs.

''The Pope unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world,'' writes Carroll. While we won't be seeing women priests, Pope Francis' radicalism includes, according to a leak to an Irish newspaper, the possibility he might appoint Mary McAleese, a former president of Ireland, to the College of Cardinals. It turns out you don't have to be male to be a cardinal. It is entirely the Pope's call. (As the cabinet is Abbott's.) A lot of Australians were worried that Abbott's dogmatic Catholicism and his close relationship with Pell might affect how he governed. How ironic then that he has reached the political pinnacle just as Rome hits reset and seems ready to promote a far more inclusive notion of faith than Abbott or Pell have previously embraced.

Twitter: @SummersAnne