Have Pope Francis’ first five years been a success?

Pope Francis greets a baby during an audience with Italian nurses in Paul VI hall at the Vatican March 3. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis greets a baby during an audience with Italian nurses in Paul VI hall at the Vatican March 3. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.

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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.

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Kenneth Wolfe
2 months 1 week ago

Is there any evidence of "seeds" for the "success" of the Francis pontificate? Mass attendance is down, despite so much enthusiasm from lapsed Catholics five years ago. I ask, seriously, for someone to show a quantifiable success during the last five years involving the sacraments (which, as the most important part of the Church, are quite simple to quantify).

Wilfreda Gonzalez
2 months 1 week ago

To use your metric Jesus Christ was a complete failure. There were 12 Apostles and hundreds (thousands?) of followers during His life who revered His teachings. When He was on the Cross they were all gone except for His Mother, a few women and St John the Apostle. By your methods Jesus was a disaster, a fraud, a charlatan

Where stand you today before Jesus Christ using your metric? Why?

What are you doing to evangelize the lost, the fallen away, the slothful, gluttoness, prideful, et al?
We ask seriously this question to people like you: show us a quantifiable success of your Catholic evangelism in the public square.

Kenneth Wolfe
2 months ago

Happy to tell you about the converts, including now-priests, and reverts I have worked with over the decades. My question, though, is about Mass attendance over the last five years. It sounds like you are admitting this pontificate has failed on this issue, despite the hype five years ago claiming Francis would draw so many Catholics (and non-Catholics) to Mass.

Christopher Lochner
2 months ago

Wilfreda, no one has to show quantifiable results to you. Please! And who are the "we" you are referring to? They're certainly not Christians!

George Watson
2 months 1 week ago

As I read this it seemed to me that "Saint John Paul II" could have replaced

"Pope Francis" - both traveled the world, both reached out to people

ignored by the world and both asked us to live lives worthy of Christ.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

His five years as pope have been a big disappointment, at least for me. He has changed nothing that I had hoped he would change, and in fact he has doubled down on things like women's place in the church, contraception, marriage equality for LGBT people, divorce, sex abuse by priests, etc. It's finally become clear to me that the church won't change, that most Catholics don't care that it won't change, and that I'm not a Catholic anymore.

Mike Macrie
2 months 1 week ago

During the Obama Presidency, each Sunday I would look above the Church door expecting to see a sign that says Democrats not welcomed. Even the homilies were aimed at the President’s policies. It was so bad that I began to think of leaving the Catholic Faith. But then I saw a group of Nuns who broke ranks from the American Conference of Bishops to support the ACA act. These Nuns who worked with the poor and saw first hand the need for Health Care for all people. Then Pope Francis came to America and spoke to the US Congress. The Pope mentioned the 3 Americans he admired the most. Many Conservatives expecting to hear the name of Ronald Reagan were disappointed when Pope Francis named Martin Luther King, Dorthy Day, and Thomas Merton, three Liberals of their times. Those Nuns and Pope Francis lifted me up in my Catholic Faith.
The problem in America is that the American Conference of Bishops push Conservative Politics into the Church that waters down Pope Francis messages to Catholics.

Crystal Watson
2 months ago

I'm a Democrat too but it's not just politics. Pope Francis has chosen to embrace and strengthen policies that keep women from being equals with men. Even the way he talks about women is contemptuous. The same is true about the way he talks of and treats sex abuse victims. He's advocated hitting children. He's disparaged civil marriage for LGBT people. He doesn't think people should divorce even in the case of domestic violence. There's more. Pope Francis is a bit better than the popes before him, but he's no gem. That people are willing to overlook the damage he does mystifies me.

Reyanna Rice
2 months ago

“God’s most beautiful creature is a woman”....Pope Francis

That’s a really contemptuous way to refer to a woman. And if you are going to come back at me with “Strawberries on the cake” don’t bother. That quote has been so taken out of context and also needs the cultural context. I have not found one contemptuous statement that he has made about women. In fact, he has defended a woman’s right to an education, work, maternity leave without penalty and works to support efforts to get women out of human trafficking . Some comtempt! And at this time he has enough pushback just on allowing for a few divorced and remarried people to reintegrate fully into the church. He would put his own life at risk if he came out definitively in support of women’s ordination.

Reyanna Rice
2 months ago

Please show me the reference where he said he is against divorce even in the case of domestic violence.

Crystal Watson
2 months ago

Here I'll list the names of the articles about Francis and the way he demeans women. They can be googled if anyone is interested ...

1) David Gibson had an article at NCR on the pope and women - "Seven reasons some women wince when Pope Francis starts talking"
2) Also at NCR, am article by Jamie Manson, "It's time to be honest about Pope Francis and women"
3) From the Christian Science Monitor, "Pope calls gender wage gap 'pure scandal.' But does he practice what he preaches?"
4) From Catholic scholar Candida Moss, "Pope Francis' Women Problem" in the LA Times
5) From The Guardian, "Pope Francis jokes 'woman was from a rib' as he avoids vow to reform church"
6) At NCR by John Allen, "Francis shoots down women cardinals"
7) By Sister Joan Chittister at NCR, "We are at a crossroads for women in the church"

About domestic violence and the pope - in his exhortation 'Amoris Laetitia' Francis says that domestic violence could be a reason for married people to live separately but he does not say that they can divorce. As Cardinal Muller, Francis' choice to head the CDF, wrote about domestic violence in marriage "In such hard cases, the Church has always permitted the spouses to separate and no longer live together. It must be remembered, though, that the marriage bond of a valid union remains intact in the sight of God, and the individual parties are not free to contract a new marriage, as long as the spouse is alive." I believe the pope takes that stance.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

"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."
What insensitive nonsense! Show me one part of the world that cares less about child abuse than another? If child abuse by priests is not THE issue of enormous importance for RCC, then you have just confirmed my suspicion that you are just a hack for the Church, intent on political propaganda for the Pope, regardless of the moral damage the Church has suffered in the last century. If the Church has lost its moral voice because of the way it has mishandled its most serious crisis in 2000 years, no amount of shilling by you is going to restore its credibility. Shame on you!

Tim O'Leary
2 months ago

Some people are judging Pope Francis by purely political secular measures and contemporary preoccupations. But they will never be satisfied by a pope because their desires are fleeting and they have a false understanding of God's will for us. Liberal Christians like that he is more skeptical of tradition, of capitalism, of markets, and is more accommodating of their political pet peeves. Agents of doctrinal change like him because, while being fully orthodox himself, he appears somewhat intolerant of more traditional bishops. There is indeed some more confusion about what the Church teaches, and less catholicity and unity than with recent popes. No doubt, he has made missteps in his off-the-cuff remarks, his appointments, and his administrative inaction and mistakes, as all popes have. But, I see him as a man of faith and zeal for the Gospel. Especially encouraging, he has advanced St. Pope JP II's focus on mercy (Sunday of Divine Mercy) and I like his emphasis on the peripheries, where the Church is suffering, but alive and growing rapidly. I have more doubts on the effectiveness of his leadership in the western world. Time will tell.

For me, his papacy should be judged on the following, and it is too early to tell:
1. Faith: Are more people understanding and believing what the Church teaches, and more converting and staying in the Church? Are more people spreading the faith?
2. Hope: Is there less depression and loneliness? Are more people availing of the sacraments, devotions, prayer? Are there more saints?
3. Love: Are more people living out the full Gospel, helping & supporting others?
4. Sanctity: Are less lives being destroyed by the abuse of relationships, of intimacy and sex (child abuse, trafficking, rape, pornography, adultery, fornication)?
5. Security: Is there less war, terrorism, murder in all its forms (including abortion and euthanasia), crime, lies and fraud? Are there more refugees and displaced persons?
6. Solidarity: Are more families staying together, praying together, having more children, raising them well, assisting their communities?
7. Subsidiarity & Stewardship: Are communities helping each other, assisting those around them, improving lives. Are we using our material resources wisely and caring for nature and the environment?

Ysais Martinez
2 months ago

That is hard to answer since his Holiness is NOT a politician running a country (yes, I know. Technically the Vatican is a country. I have been in Rome 4 times). The world will love the pope as much as it loved Jesus. They like some aspects of His Holiness, but it seems to me that they ignore Pope Francis's profound theology of conversion, his dislike for post-modern ideologies, his surprisingly frequent talks on hell and sin--while only focusing on a few "sugary drinks-esque" statements the Holy Father has made. Sigh. We consume Catholicism the same way we consume our news and politics: wildly selective.

Thomas Farrelly
2 months ago

It is good to hear that "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." Unfortunately, the Catholic in the pew has no idea what the Bishops are telling the Pope, and what his response has been. One surely hopes that they have made him aware that the shortage of priestly vocations has left an increasing number of parishes without a resident priest, a trend that will certainly get worse in the future. If they have, there is no evidence that this Pope intends to take action in contrast to ignoring it, as his two predecessors did to their everlasting shame. So far there is no public indication that he is considering a married clergy, and perhaps the immediate ordination of many deacons to the priesthood, despite being married.
One also hopes they are telling him that Humanae Vitae has been a disaster, and that it is time to apologize for the pain it has caused.
Finally, I hope they are telling him that his apparent advocacy of open borders has no chance of being accepted by First World countries, and that it simply antagonizes people and lowers his credibility.

William Murphy
2 months ago

This passage from the article deserves qualification:

"....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."

Possibly the astonishing indulgence shown towards Father Inzoli is the source of confusion on this point. It certainly casts doubt on how serious Pope Francis is about tackling this plague. Not to mention that he removed three staff from the small team in the CDF who were involved in pursuing disciplinary action against abusers.

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/02/27/pope-reduces-sanctions-…

http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/7801/pope-promises-never-to-pardon-prie…

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