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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2020
Pope Francis wears a mask as he attends an encounter to pray for peace in Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome in this Oct. 20, 2020, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis celebrates his 84th birthday on Dec. 17, and four days later he will give his traditional (and often challenging) Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia for the eighth successive year.

Soon after his election on March 13, 2013, Francis told close friends that he had the distinct feeling that his would be “a short pontificate”—not more than a few years. Now he knows he was mistaken. Informed sources confirm he is in good health and continues to have the deep inner peace that he first experienced at the time of his election. Vatican officials who meet the pope regularly say there is no conclave on the horizon.

This past year brought on special challenges as Pope Francis provided global moral leadership through the coronavirus pandemic. Yet amid the restrictions and upheaval, the pope continued his efforts to reform the church and strengthen its missionary zeal. Here is a look back at the seven ways Pope Francis steered the Catholic Church in 2020.

1. Hope for a Suffering World

One of the iconic images of this pontificate will surely be Francis standing alone in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, on that rain-swept, cold, dark evening of March 27—at the peak of the pandemic in Italy—reminding the world’s inhabitants that “no one is saved alone” and assuring them that Jesus is with us in the boat in the midst of this stormy sea.

[Podcast: Inside Pope Francis’ unprecedented Urbi et Orbi blessing for the end of coronavirus]

Francis, through his words and gestures, has given consolation and hope to countless people suffering worldwide—and not just to Catholics. He celebrated daily Mass for several months in the chapel of the Santa Marta Vatican guesthouse where he lives, which was live-streamed by national Italian television. Millions of believers around the world followed along online. He instructed the Vatican to send protective masks to the people of Wuhan, ground zero of the Covid crisis, and sent protective equipment and respirators to several poor countries. The pope had his almoner, the Polish cardinal Konrad Krajweski, ask all Vatican-based cardinals and bishops to contribute to a fund to help the poor, and he arranged for Caritas in Rome to join the city’s civil authorities in establishing a fund to help those in greatest need there.

Pope Francis, through his words and gestures, has given consolation and hope to countless people suffering worldwide—and not just to Catholics.

He set up a special task force to address the pandemic and its aftermath, advocating that the post-pandemic world order address the needs of the poor, the marginalized and those with precarious jobs and ensure them greater security in terms of employment, housing, health care and education.

2. Reforming the Roman Curia

Since becoming pope, Francis has worked to reform the Roman Curia, seeking to change its culture and redesign its structure. He is only the fourth pope to attempt such a reform since Sixtus V reorganized the Holy See’s administration in 1588.

The draft of the Curia’s new constitution is now almost complete. “Predicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”), its provisional title, reveals the missionary dimension that Francis has prioritized for this reform effort. Francis plans to publish the constitution in the first half of 2021 and to accompany it with a series of top-level appointments, replacing several senior Vatican officials first appointed by Pope Benedict XVI with men of his own choosing. He made the first of such changes on Dec. 9, 2019, nominating Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

3. Two Magisterial Texts—and a Book

Francis published two important magisterial texts in 2020. The first, “Querida Amazonia,” is the apostolic exhortation penned after the synod for the Pan-Amazonian region. Published in February, it opened the doors to new, creative ways of being a missionary church that cares for the indigenous peoples and the environment in the seven countries of the region. The text encouraged leadership roles for the laity and envisages an Amazonian rite.

On Oct. 3, Pope Francis signed “Fratelli Tutti” at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi. He drew inspiration not only from the saint but also from the Grand Imam of Al Azhar—the first time a pope has taken inspiration from a Muslim for an encyclical. The text brings together the Catholic social teaching that has been at the heart of his papal magisterium.

“Querida Amazonia” opened the doors to new, creative ways of being a missionary church that cares for the indigenous peoples and the environment.

Two months later, he published his latest book, Let Us Dream, which he wrote in collaboration with British journalist Austen Ivereigh. It addresses the coronavirus pandemic and how our response to this global crisis can enable humanity to emerge “better” than before. It provides insights into what Francis has sought to do as pope, in particular his promotion of the practice of synodality, “not just for the sake of the church,” but also “as a service to a humanity that is so often locked in paralyzed disagreements.”

In it, he recalls that during his 19-month exile in Cordoba, Argentina, which he refers to as one of three personal “covid-like experiences,” he read the 37-volume History of the Popes by Ludwig Pastor. Looking back, he says: “I can’t help wondering why God inspired me to read them. It was as if the Lord was preparing me with a vaccine. Once you know that papal history, there’s not much that goes on in the Vatican curia and the church today that can shock you. It’s been a lot of use to me!”

[Read: An exclusive essay by Pope Francis on a ‘personal Covid,’ his exile in Argentina]

4. Twin Scandals: Finances and Clerical Abuse

The pandemic was not the only significant challenge the pope faced in 2020. As in previous years, Francis has confronted both financial scandals in the Vatican and the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons by clergy, which he has described as the triple abuse of power, conscience and sex.

Continuing the effort he began in 2013 to ensure honesty, transparency and accountability in all Vatican finances, Francis instructed the Vatican’s magistrates to investigate and prosecute every illegal operation in this field and to follow wherever the evidence takes them, no matter how high up. This led in 2020 to an international investigation into the controversial investment by the Secretariat of State for the multi-million-dollar purchase of a prime property at 60 Sloane Avenue, London, that lost the Vatican millions of dollars. That investigation began with the suspension of five Vatican employees and caused Francis to remove Cardinal Angelo Becciu, his former chief-of-staff, from his post as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and to deprive him of his rights as cardinal. The investigation is near complete, and sources expect the magistrates to file charges soon.

[Podcast: The Vatican’s $200 million London real estate scandal, explained]

Francis approved new legislation on June 1 that addressed the awarding of contracts in the Vatican. On Nov. 5, he took away the Secretariat of State’s power to manage and administer Vatican funds and real estate assets. Both measures were aimed at preventing a repetition of the corruption and scandal of recent decades. In December, he approved the new statute of the Vatican’s Supervisory and Financial Information Authority to ensure “transparency and strengthening of controls in the economic-financial field.”

Since his election, Francis has also sought to combat what may be called a pandemic within the church: the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons by priests, bishops and cardinals. It is still a work in progress and has not gone without missteps. In 2020, facing down strong internal opposition in the Vatican, including from cardinals, Francis ordered the publication of the “McCarrick Report,” a thorough investigation into the rise and fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It was released on Nov. 10, as requested by the U.S. bishops.

Francis has confronted both financial scandals in the Vatican and the abuse of minors and vulnerable persons by clergy.

In recent months, Francis has begun to confront a wave of revelations that disclose both historical and more recent abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church in Poland. He has ordered investigations, removed some bishops from their dioceses and sanctioned the elderly cardinal Henryk Roman Gulbinowicz. Allegations arose that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the secretary of Pope John Paul II, covered up abuse, and the president of the Polish bishops’ conference has asked Francis to order an investigation into these allegations to clear the cardinal’s name.

5. The Vatican-China Deal

Throughout his pontificate, with evangelization in mind, Francis has sought to establish good relations with China. Oon Sept. 22, 2018, he authorized the Holy See to sign a provisional agreement with Beijing on the nomination of bishops. Last Oct. 22, he decided to renew that agreement for another two years, notwithstanding internal opposition from cardinals and others in the church, as well as external opposition from the Trump administration. Francis knows he is taking a risk but hopes improving Vatican-China relations will not only benefit the church but encourage more peaceful relations among nations.

[Related: The China-Vatican agreement has been extended. Now, Rome is looking for more from Beijing.]

6. Empowering Lay Women

Francis believes that laypeople—women, in particular—should have decision-making roles in the church that do not require priestly ordination. On Jan. 15, he appointed Francesca Di Giovanni, an Italian lay woman, to a senior managerial post in the Secretariat of State: second undersecretary with specific responsibility for the multilateral sector. She is the first woman to ever hold such a high-level post in the Holy See. In August, he appointed seven highly qualified laypeople to the board of the Vatican’s council for the economy, six of whom were women.

7. Creating New Cardinals

Like his predecessors, Francis has carefully chosen the men he makes cardinals, with the hope that the man they elect as his successor will build on the processes he started to ensure that the church is outgoing, missionary and merciful, not judgmental or confrontational—a church of encounter and dialogue that cares for the poor and the environment. He has created new cardinals almost every year, and made 13 more on Nov. 28. Nine of them are under the age of 80 with the right to vote in a conclave, including the first African-American cardinal, Wilton Gregory. On that day, 73 of the 128 electors had received the red hat from Francis, while 39 were from Benedict XVI and 16 from John Paul II.

Looking Ahead

At the beginning of 2020, Francis had plans to visit several foreign countries during the year, starting with Indonesia, East Timor, Singapore and Papua New Guinea. The coronavirus pandemic prevented him from doing so. As the year ended, however, the Vatican announced that the pope plans to visit Iraq from March 5 to March 8. Sources told America he hopes to visit South Sudan, too. But given the security concerns and the fact that the pandemic is still not under control, it remains to be seen whether he can realize these two dreams for 2021.

As he enters his 84th year, Pope Francis continues to be an important source of hope and encouragement for countless people in a world where these are in short supply.

As the year ends, despite opposition from a small minority, Francis remains popular across the global church. A recent nationwide survey in Italy, for example, conducted by Demos & Pi for La Repubblica showed that 91 percent of regular churchgoers have confidence in Francis, as do 70 percent of those who go to church infrequently, and 50 percent of those who do not go to church.

It is a sign that as he enters his 84th year, Pope Francis continues to be an important source of hope and encouragement for countless people in a world where these are in short supply.

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