As he enters the sixth year of his pontificate, Pope Francis is in good health, good spirits and sustained by that inner peace that came to him during the conclave and has never left him, according to sources close to the 265th successor of Peter.
Many commentators around the world have sought to produce a balance sheet of his first five years as pope and have engaged in extended analyses. Not a few in the Anglophone world have tended to use the question of how he is dealing with the sexual-abuse question as the unique measuring rod for judging whether his five years at the helm of the barque of Peter have been a success or not.
Of course this is an issue of the utmost importance for the life of the church and for his papal ministry, but a fair evaluation of Francis’ leadership of the church cannot be reduced to this or, indeed, to any single issue. There are many other issues of enormous importance for the preaching of the Gospel and the future of the Catholic Church that must not be overlooked in a comprehensive analysis. Issues that may be of great concern in one part of the world may not be so in another.
Francis has been first and foremost “a missionary pope,” who is determined to transform the church into “a missionary church.” He believes in preaching the Gospel by action and if necessary by words. He is a man of faith who inspires faith and gives hope, bringing the Gospel to life before our eyes.
Francis has been first and foremost “a missionary pope,” who is determined to transform the church into “a missionary church.”
When Francis became pope, the church was in deep crisis in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world, and many people felt uneasy about identifying themselves as Catholics. That is no longer the case today. Francis has energized the church not only in the southern hemisphere but all over the Catholic world. He has done so especially by his focus on mercy, repeatedly telling people that “the name of our God is mercy,” and that mercy and the poor are at the heart of the Gospel.
He moved the center of the Catholic Church to the periphery when, for the first time in history, he opened a jubilee, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, in November 2015. He continues his focus on mercy every Friday with different expressions of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
As a bishop in Buenos Aires, he was always a “cura callejero”—a street priest. Today one could describe him as a “papa callejero,” a pilgrim pope, always in movement—he has visited 33 countries. He wants the pilgrim church to be in movement, reaching out to people in all walks of life, making people aware that God is present and active not only in the streets of our major cities but also at its peripheries, the shanty towns that may surround them. To underline this last point, he has created many cardinals from those peripheries, seeking to bring their experience into the heart of the church and to ensure that the conclave that will elect his successor “is truly Catholic,” as he said on one occasion.
It is important to note that there is a “prophetic” dimension to Francis’ ministry that is often overlooked or misunderstood and sometimes provokes resistance. The editorial in this week’s edition of La Civiltá Cattolica drew attention to this when it stated that “Francis is a pope of the Second Vatican Council, not because he affirms and defends it constantly, but because he has grasped the intimate value of the re-reading of the Gospel in the light of contemporary experience.” In this context, the editorial recalled that Paul VI, in his closing speech to the fourth and final session of that council, defined charity as “the religion of our council” and reminded the council fathers of the story of the Good Samaritan.
Pope Francis wants to transform the whole church through the path of conversion.
Every day in his homilies, Francis walks in the light of that council, as he links the Gospel of the day to contemporary life. His homilies are having an extraordinary impact across the world and have been published in books in many languages. Francis has followed the council too in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” and in his exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” But this “prophetic” path has not only energized many in the church, it has also disturbed some who have resisted his message.
Pope Francis wants to transform the whole church through the path of conversion. Like the saint whose name he has taken, he has set out “to repair” the church at all levels, starting with the form of the papacy itself. For five years he has engaged in what he calls “the conversion of the papacy” and has pursued this ambition mainly by deed in ways that have had a major impact on believers and nonbelievers alike.
He chose not to live in the Apostolic Palace but opted instead for a small three-room apartment in Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse, and he shunned the papal limousine in favor of an economy Ford Focus car. His lifestyle is simple and humble, carried out under the hallmark of poverty, not that of a monarch or prince. He is setting a standard for bishops and clergy too. He insists that he is first of all “a sinner” and that he too can and does make mistakes, that as pope he does not have the answers to all questions. He has demystified the papacy in this and many other ways and has brought it closer to the people. He is transforming it in ways that are likely to condition how his successors live and carry out the Petrine ministry. This has important consequences in the ecumenical field, but also from the perspective of evangelization.
Like Abraham, Francis is above all else a man of faith who as pope is not afraid to go out into the unknown and take risks—“the risk of faith”—in pursuit of peace among nations, harmony between the followers of the different religions and giving hope to people in desperate situations of conflict and misery. His role in the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States is one example. Others include his visits to the Central African Republic, Egypt, Colombia and Myanamar and his readiness to go to Iraq and South Sudan as soon as that is possible to console and encourage the people there.
Francis is a man of faith who as pope is not afraid to go out into the unknown and take risks.
In the preconclave meetings, the cardinals entrusted the new pope with the complex and difficult task of reforming the Roman Curia. Francis has already achieved a number of objectives in this reform process, but much still remains to be done, including further combining or restructuring other Vatican offices and finalizing a new constitution governing the curia to replace “Pastor Bonus,” which was promulgated by St. John Paul II. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, one of the nine members of the council of cardinals that advise the pope on this reform, told America he expected most of the reform to be completed by the end of 2018, but he emphasized that what Francis wants most of all, much more than structural change, is “a change of mentality” so that the Roman Curia is at the service of the pope in the exercise of his Petrine ministry and at the service of the local churches.
Many bishops conferences have already experienced the first fruits of that reform when they came to Rome for their ad limina visits. They found a new atmosphere in the curia offices marked by a spirit of welcome from Vatican officials and a readiness to listen. Their meetings with the pope have been transformed into a real dialogue that can last two or more hours during which they talk freely and ask questions. The pope listens, responds and encourages them.
Pope Francis wants the curia to help him promote synodality in the church to involve all the people of God. One fruit of that synodality was evident at the two synods on the family.
The pope is fully conscious that the question of the abuse of minors by priests is a major scandal and an obstacle to evangelization. He is committed to pursuing the “zero tolerance” policy started by Pope Benedict XVI, but he has gone further by seeking to hold bishops or religious superiors fully accountable under canon law for cover up of abuse or failure to protect children. He wants this policy not only to be fully enforced and implemented in the Roman Curia but also by bishops in dioceses across the world, and he wants it to be a system that is much more transparent so that people can see concrete results.
Francis is deeply committed to a pastoral response to the crisis and meets victims almost weekly.
There have been valid criticisms of his handling of the ongoing sexual abuse crisis and some self-inflicted wounds like the controversy that erupted over the appointment of Bishop Juan Barros in Chile and the pope’s comments about survivors of clergy abuse in that South American nation. Nevertheless Francis is deeply committed to a pastoral response to the crisis and meets victims almost weekly. Many priests have been removed from the ministry, several bishops as well as some religious superiors have been removed from positions of authority, and he has not signed even one pardon of the 20 to 25 appeals by priests convicted of abusing minors that have been submitted to him, but some media and victims’ organizations, with minimal evidence, have cast doubt on this.
As one former European Union ambassador told me, “The Vatican has a story to tell, but it is not good at telling it.” In the coming years, Francis knows he must ensure that the Vatican tells its story, provides the facts and acts in a more transparent way.
From the first day of his pontificate, Pope Francis sought to build bridges to China and develop a positive working relation with its leadership. He has struggled to reach an agreement with Beijing on the crucial question of the nomination of bishops and is now on the threshold of doing so, presuming Chinese authorities provide their assent. Once the accord is signed and sealed Francis will set out on the next stage of the journey to develop the relationship in various areas, even as he prays to be given the grace to enter the Forbidden City as the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci did more than 450 years ago.
Francis has spoken much about the need to promote women to roles of greater responsibility in the church and in the curia. He has already appointed three women as undersecretaries in two major Vatican departments—the Secretariat for Laity, Family and Life, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life. He has also appointed a woman as head of the Vatican Museums and as deputy director of the Holy See’s press office. He is expected to take further concrete steps in this direction. He set up a commission to study the question of women deacons in the early church and will draw conclusions about the contemporary role of women from that review.
Francis has constantly sought to draw closer to young people and to listen to them. Over the next year, he will have two major opportunities for doing so: the pre-synod gathering of young people in Rome next week in preparation for next October’s Synod of Bishops on Young People and the World Youth Day in Panama in January 2019.
Ever since the Latin American Episcopal Council assembly in Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007, Francis has been concerned about the dramatic environmental situation in the Amazon region and the difficulties for evangelization there. For this reason he has convened the synod on the Amazon region. It will be held in October 2019 and will focus on the protection of this common home, the lungs of the world. It will likely also address the question of whether to authorize the ordination of mature married men to ensure the provision of the Eucharist for the native peoples in this region.
As La Civiltá Cattolica wrote in its editorial, Francis “does not believe in pret-a-porter” solutions. He is not like a C.E.O. with a five-year plan that might produce some obvious results. Pope Francis leads “a pontificate of seeds.” The changes he has set in motion will need time to mature. His successors will reap the harvest.