VATICAN CITY -- An Italian industrialist tried to curry favor by donating $100,000 worth of truffles. A Mercedes-Benz executive hoped for an audience to suggest improvements to the Popemobile. But in the final years of the papacy of Benedict XVI, others sent very different messages, too, desperate for the pope's ear.
A cardinal warned that the pope's top administrator was undermining his papacy. And two church benefactors sounded an alarm that the Vatican's governing hierarchy, known as the Roman Curia, was riddled with intrigue.
"Where is the strength in the Curia to resist the temptations of power?" they asked in January 2011, in one of hundreds of letters to Benedict that were published last year in a book that touched off the scandal over leaked Vatican documents.
This is the Vatican inherited by Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, who will be formally installed as pope on Tuesday. In his first week on the job he has shown an uncommon humility, signaling a new direction for the church. Yet, changing the style of the papacy is far easier than changing the Vatican -- an ancient monarchy in which the pope is treated like a king, branches of the hierarchy are run like medieval fiefs and supplicants vie for access and influence.
For decades popes have tried, and often failed, to change the Vatican. How Francis fares could define his papacy -- and determine whether the church can better serve its more than one billion faithful around the globe.
"There have been a number of popes in succession with different personalities, but the structure remains the same," said a former superior general of a Roman Catholic religious order, who spent more than a decade in Rome. "Whoever is appointed, they get absorbed by the structure. Instead of you transforming the structure, the structure transforms you."
As the head of the Catholic Church, Francis is more than its spiritual leader. He is also the top box of one of the most opaque government flow charts in the world, running the last truly global empire from the world's smallest sovereign state, which sits on 108 acres in the heart of Rome behind high walls.
While the power of the pope is absolute, the vested institutional interests and vast bureaucracy of the Vatican are powerful, too. The waning days of Benedict's troubled papacy were marked by complaints from ordinary Catholics as well as from powerful cardinals that the Curia had become too concerned with accumulating power and unresponsive to the needs of its followers.
For Francis to change that, he must contend with power centers within the Vatican that revolve around things like money, real estate and the distribution of resources, but also foreign policy, ideology and church doctrine. Beneath the pope, a handful of powerful cardinals preside over nine congregations, including ones that manage religious orders, global missionary work, the liturgy and the naming of bishops, as well as 12 pontifical councils. A single department oversees the process of selecting new saints.
The most powerful administrator, after the pope, is his secretary of state, who plays a critical role in guiding church affairs, setting the foreign policy agenda and controlling access to the pope.
Benedict selected Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a canon lawyer, who wielded tremendous power as the main gatekeeper, alienated many inside the Vatican and was widely seen as more interested in Italian politics than in global affairs.
The intense dissatisfaction with his management worsened long-simmering turf wars.
"For some time in various parts of the church, including among people extremely faithful to it, critical voices have been raised about the lack of coordination and confusion which reigns at its center," Cardinal Paolo Sardi of Italy said to the pope in February 2009, in one of the letters published last May in the tell-all book, "Your Holiness: The Secret Papers of Benedict XVI."
Those leaks raised the stakes by embarrassing even the pope. They showed the deluge of personal requests made of Benedict, but also included complaints of corruption by a senior Vatican official who was transferred after trying to rein in cost overruns.
Not least, the letters offered a glimpse of a Vatican culture that often resembles a baroque court, in which cardinals are referred to as "Your Eminence" and bishops as "Excellencies."
Such customs date back centuries, and Benedict appeared to thrive on them. He revived the ancient papal custom of wearing red shoes and ornate brocades. One prominent cardinal, Franc Rodé, wore a billowing red train, known as a cappa magna, while ordaining new priests.
"The cardinals are accustomed to being treated like nobility," said Jason Berry, author of "Render Unto Rome," a book examining the finances of the church. "The cardinals have de facto immunity. Under canon law, they are never punished. The other problem is that popes are very, very reluctant to shake up the political culture that elected them."
Critics of the Curia say these traditions have nurtured a hierarchy of promotions and positions based on personal favoritism and connections. That structure is at once unwieldy and uncoordinated, they say, while being overly centralized, stirring resentment for the nontransparent and nondemocratic ways in which it renders judgments.
Last year, the powerful department known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- the same office that convicted Galileo of heresy and ran the Inquisition -- ordered a controversial reprimand of American nuns for challenging church teachings on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood.
Yet when a committee representing the leaders of different religious orders sought a meeting to clarify the nun issue, the Vatican response was murky at best, with no single department accepting responsibility for the investigation.
"There seems to be a kind of culture of secrecy in the Curia," said the former superior general of a religious order who, like many others interviewed for this article, asked not to be identified in order to speak frankly. "Occasionally, they would send out a questionnaire for consultation on some issue. But basically, the Curia is a self-contained system that functions by itself."
Even insiders complain that communication among various departments is slow and fractured. When the Vatican announced a plan to enable traditionalist Anglicans to find a home within the Catholic Church, it surprised even Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official overseeing the church's relations with Anglicans. The announcement occurred while the cardinal was out of town.
Benedict became the first pope to use Twitter, with the handle @Pontifex, but the Vatican is lagging in many other respects. As in Italy, faxes remain the preferred means of correspondence. Vatican landlines do not have voice mail and not all employees have an e-mail address. Responses are slow in coming.
"It takes months!" to accomplish things, said one Vatican official.
"When you come from a diocese, you are used to doing things quickly," he added. "Here, the Roman mechanisms are designed to prevent people with a good idea from carrying it forward."
Recently, the official became frustrated because the Vatican could not issue a fast, coordinated response to bishops around the world asking for advice on how to offer communion wafers during flu season. Delays occurred because too many Vatican departments demanded consultation, he said.
"Can you imagine a comparable multinational with such little staff?" asked Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, considered a leader among reformist cardinals. "It's just amazing."
Pope Francis seems intent on changing this culture. He wore a simple white cassock when he was introduced as pope and later made reference to his "brother cardinals," rather than addressing them as the customary "your lordships." Last Saturday, the Vatican said Francis would provisionally reinstate all existing department heads, as is customary. But Vatican watchers say the very fact that he issued the statement, rather than staying silent, indicates he may install his own team relatively quickly.
Those who know the Vatican understand that changing it will not be easy.
"If I wanted to be mischievous," said Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris, last week, "I would say that I don't know many cases of people who get to the top of their organization and who don't say that it needs deep reform -- and that after them, nothing will be the same."
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.