Many in Rome believe that 2015 could prove to be a watershed year in the pontificate of the first Latin American pope.
It is a year that will see Pope Francis visit eight countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas and perhaps one or more in Europe. It’s a year in which he will create some 12 new cardinal electors, make further reforms in the Roman Curia, issue an encyclical on ecology, conclude the Synod on the Family and maybe sign a landmark accord with China on the nomination of bishops.
The Argentine pope is profoundly convinced that God has called him to reform the church. Now 78, he is moving ahead at full speed with that mission knowing there is no time to lose.
He has already issued a New Year’s call for global mobilization to eradicate modern slavery; and before departing on his second journey to Asia, he will announce the names of the new cardinals. He will also give a New Year’s greeting to ambassadors from the 180 countries that have full diplomatic relations with the Holy See and will address the precarious global situation, where a third world war is unfolding in stages.
On Jan. 12 he will fly to Asia, the continent where over 60 percent of the world’s population lives, 3 percent of whom are Christian. He will first visit Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country of 20 million people (6 percent Catholic) that is recovering from a 26-year civil war that has left deep, open wounds in the Tamil population. The Catholic Church has members on both sides of the divide. Francis is expected to call for reconciliation, justice and peace when he visits the famous Marian shrine of Madhu in what was the war zone. He’ll also canonize the country’s first saint, Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary priest.
From there he will travel to the Philippines, which has more Catholics than all other Asian countries combined. Indeed, his first reason for going there is to comfort the four million Filipinos left homeless by typhoon Haiyan in 2013. He will, of course, visit Manila, where millions are expected to welcome him.
Back in Rome, he will create some 12 new cardinal electors on Feb. 14 and 15, as he seeks to correct the imbalance in the Electoral College, which favors Europe (especially Italy) and the United States, by giving greater representation to churches on other continents, especially those on the peripheries hit by conflict or poverty.
Later this year—the dates have yet to be decided—Francis will visit three Latin American countries, including Paraguay (according to the local nuncio) and Bolivia (according to the president). He will also visit two countries in Africa. Then, in late September, he will visit the United States and, almost certainly, the United Nations, stopping in New York, Washington and Philadelphia (for the World Meeting of Families). There’s a possibility he may also visit France.
Throughout the year, Francis, assisted by his Council of Cardinal Advisers, will move ahead, step by step, with the reform of the Roman Curia. Though this will not be completed in 2015, he is expected to establish two new congregations this year— one for the laity and the family, another for justice and peace—and might also decide on a new organization of Vatican communications.
On another front, Francis will publish an important encyclical on ecology. It is expected to address such important questions as care for creation, climate change and human ecology.
Many believe that the most important event on his agenda this year will be the Synod of Bishops on the Family, from Oct. 4 to 25, that will be preceded by further consultation of the faithful and clergy by the bishops. That synod’s task is to present the pope with concrete pastoral proposals for addressing the dramatic situations of families in today’s world. The synod is not a parliament, however, and Francis, who believes this is the kairos (God’s appointed time) for mercy, will have the final say.
The big unknown is whether the Holy See will reach an accord this year with China regarding the nomination of bishops and other disputed questions. There appears to be a good chance this will happen under the first Jesuit pope. If so, this would open significant new horizons for Sino-Vatican relations and for the Catholic Church in that part of the world.