Rome in Review

What an extraordinary year this has been for the Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis, who continues to inspire and reach the hearts of people far beyond its boundaries!

In this last Vatican Dispatch of the year, I will briefly review what the Argentine pope has done to change the church in 2014 and how he has reached out to the peripheries and opened new frontiers.

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During 2014 Francis opened new processes and sought to introduce changes in the church in several ways. He began with the process for the selection of bishops. On Feb. 27 he visited the Congregation of Bishops and spelled out the criteria to be used in the selection of bishops, in addition to those he gave the nuncios in June 2013. He is monitoring this process carefully, and sources say he personally intervened in the appointment of bishops to a number of major sees, including Madrid and Chicago.

In February he held his first consistory to create new cardinals and, breaking with tradition, he sought to correct the imbalance that favored Europe (especially Italy) and the United States in the College of Cardinals and to give more representation to other parts of the world, especially the peripheries.

Throughout the year, assisted by his council of cardinal advisers, he made considerable progress toward reform of the Roman Curia. He created a Secretariat for the Economy and appointed Cardinal George Pell to head the new structure; he gave him extensive powers to ensure all Vatican offices will operate with an agreed program and budget starting on Jan. 1.

By December 2014, his cardinal advisers were drafting the plan for curial reform. One part envisages the creation of two new congregations, for the laity and for charity/justice, and incorporating several existing councils. Another part involves restructuring the Secretariat of State and bringing all Vatican tribunals and the Council for Interpretation of Legislative Texts under one umbrella. A papal commission headed by Lord Patten is working on a project to incorporate the Vatican’s media operations into one new Communications Secretariat. The reform plan should be completed by mid-2015.

Like other popes before him, Francis is appointing men of his own choosing to key positions in the Roman Curia. In 2014 he appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Paul Gallagher of Britain as secretary for relations with states and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti of Morocco to head the Vatican’s top tribunal (the Segnatura Apostolica).

Pope Francis made five foreign trips in 2014: to the Holy Land (Jordan, Palestine, Israel), Korea, Albania, the European Parliament and Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and to Turkey. Four are Muslim-majority states, and in visiting them he sought to strengthen Christian-Muslim relations, advocated greater creativity in interreligious dialogue and encouraged working together for peace in the Middle East.

During his Holy Land visit, he sought to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and convened a prayer for peace in the Vatican with the Palestinian and Israeli presidents. In the divided Korean peninsula, he encouraged a new effort for peace. And in his meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew, he made every effort to overcome the Catholic-Orthodox divide.

During 2014 Francis also led a major international effort to combat human trafficking, prostitution and slave labor. This reached a high point on Dec. 2, when the leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches joined faith leaders from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism to sign a common declaration to work for the eradication of modern slavery by 2020.

There is little doubt, however, that the event that has most affected the Catholic Church and continues to influence it across the globe has been the two-stage Synod on the Family that Pope Francis convened. The synod, under his leadership, is enjoying a freedom hitherto not experienced and is shaking up the church in a way that has not happened since the Second Vatican Council. We are likely to see more of the “Francis effect” in this and other fields in 2015.

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