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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 16, 2023
Pope Francis smiles during the World Youth Day welcome ceremony at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis, who will celebrate his 87th birthday on Dec. 17, is now one of the oldest popes in history. He is in good health for a man of his age. The surgeon who operated on him a couple of months ago to treat an abdominal hernia said his heart, lungs, kidneys and other vital organs are in good shape, and he has the mental abilities of a 60-year-old. His main problem is mobility issues caused by his right knee, but thanks to therapy and weight loss, this has improved in recent months.

Francis appears determined to continue working at high speed in this final stretch of his ministry. He hopes to close the two-session synod on synodality at the end of October 2024 and to open the Jubilee Year of 2025.

In the meantime, he has many important events on his agenda between now and Dec. 31. I will mention the main ones—aware that Francis could spring surprises, just as he did with the nomination of 21 new cardinals, for whom he will hold a consistory on Sept. 30. Eighteen are electors with the right to vote in a conclave to choose his successor. On that date, close to 73 percent of the electors will have been chosen by him, increasing the likelihood that the next pope will be a man who shares his vision of a synodal church.

Francis appears determined to continue working at high speed in this final stretch of his ministry.

After that, the pope will open the two-session Synod on Synodality on Oct. 4 and attend its plenary sessions and greet the participants individually. He will close this first session on Oct. 29. As I have stated before, I believe this synod could well be the most transformative event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. It is the central event of the reform envisaged by Pope Francis; its roots can be found in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), the programmatic document of this pontificate.

Between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, Francis will also no doubt give much thought and prayer to the appointments he will make this fall to the Roman Curia, nunciatures (Vatican diplomatic missions) and dioceses worldwide. He is expected to replace some senior officials in the Curia, including those who have passed the retirement age of 75—among them Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary, which is the supreme tribunal of the Vatican and is responsible for granting pardons to penitents in particular cases. (Francis calls it “the mercy court.”) He might also replace the secretaries of some dicasteries.

No fewer than 13 nunciatures are vacant today, and the men Francis assigns to those missions will significantly affect the life of the local churches. Many in Rome expect him to also appoint new nuncios to the United States and perhaps Italy before the end of the year, replacing the cardinals-elect Christophe Pierre and Emil Paul Tscherrig, who are both over the age of 75.

He will nominate many new bishops, again with particular attention to archbishops in several countries, including the United States, to succeed those who have reached the age of 75, just as he did earlier this year in Brussels, Buenos Aires, Madrid and Toronto.

A significant change already occurred this year on July 1, when Francis appointed the Argentine archbishop-theologian Victor Manuel Fernandez, now cardinal-elect, as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. This Vatican office has two sections: one relating to theology, the other to disciplinary questions. More than 80 percent of the disciplinary section’s work now involves cases of abuse in the church, but in a letter accompanying the appointment, Francis said he wants the new prefect to focus on theological issues and let the doctrinal section deal with the abuse issues.

Vatican sources now believe that Francis may wish to conduct a review of the doctrinal section of the dicastery, since the Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors became part of that section when reform of the Curia took effect in June 2002. Since then, serious questions have been raised regarding the council’s management and direction, and sources expect Francis to intervene and address these.

Pope Francis will also certainly pay attention to the “trial of the century,” in which the Vatican chief prosecutor has asked for prison sentences for Cardinal Angelo Becciu, former chief of staff to Benedict XVI and Francis, and nine others accused of financial crimes relating to the purchase of a London property with Vatican funds in 2012. The three lay judges expect to deliver their verdict before Christmas.

The first Jesuit pope was scheduled to set out on his 43rd foreign trip at the end of August to visit Mongolia, the 61st country he will have visited. He is also considering visiting Kosovo next, but it is not clear if that will happen this year.

Last but not least, Francis will continue to devote time and attention to exploring ways to help end the war in Ukraine and ensure a just peace for that martyred nation.

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