3 years ... and counting: The pontificate of Pope Francis

Three years ago, the world was astonished to witness the election of the 76-year-old Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Since then, he has been the pope of surprises, but we also have been given the opportunity to get to know him and, with each passing year, to learn more about him: his style, his thoughts and his hopes for the Church.

In his first year, for example, we discovered he is abidingly committed to pastoral care, speaks openly about himself as a sinner and is willing to give interviews in all kinds of settings.

So what did we learn about Pope Francis in his third year as Vicar of Christ, and what can the faithful look forward to in the fourth year of his pontificate?

Pope Francis blessing disabled
Pope Francis greets a man as he blesses the disabled during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Jan. 13. CNS photo by Paul Haring

Key themes

Looking back

Pope Francis strongly believes in the power of mercy, so much so that he decreed 2016 to be a Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Francis has been speaking about mercy since the moment of his election and has called on all Catholics to remember God’s loving mercy and to carry that message out into the wider world. For example:

◗ He stressed it throughout the Synod of Bishops on the family in the modern world in its two sessions in 2014 and 2015.
◗ He speaks of mercy on every trip, especially when meeting with the poor and the suffering.
◗ He proclaimed the Jubilee Year of Mercy in the hope that it will be a moment of powerful reflection on God’s mercy for the entire Church.

As he declared in March last year when he announced his plans for the Jubilee Year, “I am confident that the whole Church, which is in such need of mercy for we are sinners, will be able to find in this jubilee the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy, with which we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time. Do not forget that God forgives all, and God forgives always. Let us never tire of asking forgiveness.”

Looking ahead

While mercy will likely be a theme throughout his pontificate, it is clear that the Holy Father during the upcoming year will continue to emphasize Christian unity as well.

October will see the beginning of a year of events to mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, presenting Francis with many chances to appeal for Christian unity. One already is on the schedule. In 2017, “all Christians of all confessions” are invited to celebrate Pentecost in St. Peter’s Square and to pray for Christian unity in the Holy Spirit.

Francis certainly will continue to shine a light on the plight of Christians around the world — above all, in the Middle East.

As he said to members of a number of Christian churches gathered in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. “In this moment of prayer for unity, I would also like to remember our martyrs, the martyrs of today. They are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted. This, brothers and sisters, is the ecumenism of blood.”

The closing weeks of the third year of Pope Francis’ papacy brought an historic event in the area of ecumenism. On his way to Mexico, on Feb. 12, he stopped in Cuba and met with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church — an event long hoped for but also considered highly unlikely. What will follow? Pope Francis has publicly expressed a willingness to go anywhere in the name of peace of ecumenical dialogue. Cuba proved that. It is possible that the way has been cleared for him to travel to Moscow, perhaps at the invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in what would be another unprecedented moment.


Challenging the faithful

Looking back

From the moment of his election, Pope Francis has continued to challenge and encourage the faithful in his writings, his speeches and his homilies. Year 3 of his pontificate was no different, as it saw the release of the pope’s contentious — not to mention often misinterpreted — encyclical, Laudato Si’ (“Praise Be to You”).

Pope Benedict XVI may have earned the nickname “the Green Pope,” but Pope Francis has become a world leader in the promotion of ecology, in particular what he refers to as integral ecology — the deeply connected relationship between the human environment and the natural environment. The encyclical served as Francis’ declaration on several themes very important to him, including:

◗ The environment.
◗ The common good.
◗ Globalization.
◗ The plea to remember that we must avoid a throwaway culture that uses resources — including human ones — and then tosses them away after they have served their purpose. Such a view, Francis teaches, destroys the dignity of the human person.

He said during his visit last year to Bolivia — one of the poorest nations in South America — that the global economy all too often discards the poor, the elderly and any who are deemed unproductive. “It is a mentality,” he said, “in which everything has a price, everything can be bought, everything is negotiable. This way of thinking has room only for a select few, while it discards all those who are unproductive.”

With his encyclical and his commitment to integral ecology, Francis has also begun to reorient many minds in the modern environmental movement away from a worldview rooted in scientism and even anti-religious hostility toward a scripturally based vision of creation. He wrote in Laudato Si’ that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations ... We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.”

Looking ahead

Laudato Si’ caused a firestorm, but it also placed Francis and the Church in the wider cultural discussion about the environment and our responsibilities toward the created world. Francis has a gift for speaking to the heart.

Nearly a year after the release of Laudato Si’, the faithful again are anticipating another major document from the Holy Father: the apostolic exhortation following the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family. Francis spoke of the post-synod document in his in-flight interview on his return trip to Rome from Mexico, saying it is possible it could be published before Easter. He gave a glimpse as to a portion of the document’s contents, saying, “In the post-synod document ... in one of the chapters, because it has many, it spoke about the conflicts, wounded families and the pastoral (care) of wounded families. It is one of the concerns, as another is the preparation for marriage.”

There is little doubt that in the year ahead, the ever-present suspense of what Francis might say, write or do to challenge Catholics and people of goodwill will continue.

Hectic schedule

Looking back

Given his age at the time of his election, it was assumed that Francis would not be much of a traveler. Instead, the third year of his pontificate found Francis literally all over the world with five major trips. His hectic year saw him visit:

Pope Francis speaks to Press
Pope Francis answers questions aboard his return flight from Bangui, Central African Republic, on Nov. 30. CNS photo

◗ Bosnia and Herzegovina (June 6);
◗ Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay (July 5-13);
◗ Cuba and the United States (Sept. 19-27);
◗ Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic (Nov. 25-30);
◗ Cuba (Feb. 12) for a meeting with Patriarch Kirill and Mexico (Feb. 12-17).

In all, he has made 11 apostolic visits outside of Italy in three years.

The trip to Africa was especially demanding as Francis not only visited the continent for the first time but became the first pope in the modern era to enter an active war zone when he stopped at the strife-torn capital of the Central African Republic, Bangui.

Looking ahead

During the in-flight interview on his return trip from Africa, Pope Francis acknowledged his schedule is becoming difficult. “Trips at my age aren’t healthy,” he said. “One can survive them but they are leaving their mark.”

But still, despite turning 79 last December, Francis is expected to return to South America with visits to Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as trips to Armenia, Poland for World Youth Day and Sweden in the upcoming year.

These trips follow renewed speculation — not to mention wild rumors — about his health last year. During the Synod of Bishops last October, the Italian publication Quotidiano Nazionale published a story that Francis had a benign tumor that was treated without surgery. The speculation only grew worse when the pontiff stumbled twice in three days in early November during liturgies at the basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran. The stories merely reflected new kinds of rumor-mongering about a pope who was elected with a history of health concerns, including a partially removed lung from an infection in his youth and chronic sciatica.

Pope Francis will turn 80 at the end of the year, and he has spoken several times about possibly retiring like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, or having a relatively brief pontificate. On the flight back to Rome following his trip to South Korea, he told reporters, “Interiorly, I try to think about my sins and my mistakes, lest I have any illusions, since I realize that this is not going to last long, two or three years, and then ... off to the house of the Father.” That was in August 2014.

Pope Francis with young refugees
Pope Francis meets with young refugees after joining Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to denounce the plight of Christians. CNS photo

Worldwide diplomacy

Looking back

Pope Francis has proven himself to be a surprisingly good diplomat. In September 2013, he made his first significant foray onto the international diplomatic stage when he spoke out against a planned armed intervention in Syria by the United States and France. He called on the world to find a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis and then led a five-hour evening prayer service for Syria in St. Peter’s Square. “How many conflicts, how many wars have marked our history!” he said. “Even today we raise our hand against our brother … We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death.” The result was to short circuit the planned bombing campaign and to spur negotiations. The prayer vigil in hindsight may have spared Syria from even worse bloodshed and the horrifying possibility that the Islamic State might have seized Damascus and the whole of Syria.

In 2014, he used his trip to the Holy Land to spur negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis and then invited the Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a prayer encounter.

The pope began 2015 with another diplomatic triumph. It was revealed that earlier in 2014 the pontiff had sent letters to both President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in which he asked them “to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations.” The effort sparked intense negotiations that climaxed with the reopening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and the release of the American prisoner, Alan Gross. Francis and Vatican diplomats played a crucial role, including hosting some of the meetings. Little wonder that Francis has been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Looking ahead

The genocide of Christians may be at the top of the list, but it is also but one pressing diplomatic crisis facing the world. As seen, Francis is a sharp diplomat, and it is certain that he will continue to play a role in all major international emergencies. He is already in the forefront of the global catastrophes of mass migration, environmental degradation and terrible disparities between the developed and the developing worlds. Quietly, too, he has approved the redoubtable work of the Secretariat of State under Cardinal Pietro Parolin to negotiate agreements with Chad, the Palestinians and Kuwait ratifying the legal status of the Church that hopefully will foster peaceful religious coexistence and religious freedom.

He reminded the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See in January that the person and human dignity must be at the heart of every humanitarian response. “What is needed,” he said, “is a common commitment which can decisively turn around the culture of waste and lack of respect for human life, so that no one will feel neglected or forgotten, and that no further lives will be sacrificed due to the lack of resources and, above all, of political will.”

Pope Francis with clergy
Pope Francis arrives to lead the traditional Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican on Dec. 21. CNS photo

Vatican reforms

Looking back

Many of the cardinals candidly stated after the conclave in 2013 that Cardinal Bergoglio had been chosen in part with the clear duty of carrying forward aggressively the reforms of the Vatican and Roman Curia that had begun under Pope Benedict XVI.

Francis has proved he is a serious reformer in the great tradition of reforming popes. He wasted no time in establishing the special commission of cardinals to advise his reform efforts, the so-called C-9 that includes the American Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston. Not only has he pushed extensive financial reforms and some Vatican restructuring, he has exhorted the members of the Curia to undergo a thoroughgoing spiritual reform as well. Over the last three years, he has used his Christmas addresses to the officials of the Holy See to urge them to embrace professionalism and service and to avoid what he termed the “catalogue of curial diseases.”

At the end of 2015, he offered a practical list of 12 needed virtues for those working in the Curia with a focus on mercy:

◗ Missionary and pastoral spirit;
◗ Idoneity and sagacity;
◗ Spirituality and humanity;
◗ Example and fidelity;
◗ Rationality and gentleness;
◗ Innocuousness and determination;
◗ Charity and truth;
◗ Honesty and maturity;
◗ Respectfulness and humility;
◗ Diligence and attentiveness;
◗ Intrepidness and alertness;
◗ Trustworthiness and sobriety.

“May mercy guide our steps,” he said, “inspire our reforms and enlighten our decisions. May it be the basis of all our efforts. May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back. May it also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater plan of salvation and his majestic and mysterious working.”

Connected to spiritual and administrative reform is Francis’ desire for a technological revolution, especially in the area of communications. While he has described himself as a technological “dinosaur,” he created a commission of international experts to propose changes to Vatican communications, revamped the entire organizational structure of Vatican media and press offices and has proven extremely adroit in social communications.

Looking ahead

While Francis has made progress in his broad reform of the Curia, despite some clear signs of internal resistance and resentment, this year may bring the next stages. In December, his Council of Cardinals approved several proposals for two new dicasteries (or departments) that would bring together a number of current Vatican offices under one structure, much as he has done with Vatican communications. The two new dicasteries are reportedly “Laity, Family and Life” and “Justice, Peace and Migration.” During the Council of Cardinals’ latest meetings in February, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said, “the proposals were finalized and given to the pope for his decision.”

Francis will likely approve the plan, and then he may proceed with reforms of two other dicasteries: the Secretariat of State and the Congregation for Divine Worship.

The big questions are whether he will be able this year to publish the formal decree completing the work of reform and how much opposition he will encounter in the process. Francis is determined, but there may be some in Rome who think they can wait him out.

Respect for life

Looking back

Everyone knows that Pope Francis is much concerned with the health and security of the family in the modern world, but it is easy to overlook the fact that he is staunchly committed to the culture of life. Because he tends to contextualize the culture of life from the perspective of the poor and the forgotten, there has been an assumption that Francis somehow demoted the Church’s vital concern for the unborn, the elderly and sick. In truth, he has spoken and written extensively on abortion, euthanasia and the protection of the weak and forgotten. In May 2015, Pope Francis declared, “The level of progress in a society is measured by its capacity to safeguard life, above all in its most fragile stages, more than by the spread of technological instruments. When we speak of mankind, we must never forget the various attacks on the sacredness of human life. The plague of abortion is an attack on life. … Death from malnutrition is an attack on life. Terrorism, war, violence; so is euthanasia. Loving life means always taking care of the other, wanting the best for him, cultivating and respecting her transcendent dignity.”

Days after meeting with prisoners Feb. 17 in Mexico, Pope Francis called for a moratorium on the death penalty during the Year of Mercy. CNS photo by Paul Haring

Francis recently also made one of his strongest statements yet on the dignity of the unborn. On the return flight from Mexico, he spoke clearly, saying, “Abortion ... is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil.”

Looking ahead

Just days after returning from Mexico, Pope Francis continued to advocate for a consistent approach on the dignity of life. The pope, following his Feb. 21 Angelus, said that “all Christians and people of goodwill are called today to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty” but to also improve conditions in prisons out of respect for the dignity of inmates. “The commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ has absolute value and concerns both the innocent and the guilty,” he said, adding that even criminals “maintain the inviolable right to life, the gift of God.”

The Holy Father appealed “to the consciences of government leaders” and to Catholic leaders not to carry out any death sentences during the Year of Mercy.

The Holy Year will also allow the Church and Pope Francis to continue to honor those society has pushed to the margins. Special jubilee events will be held for the sick and persons with disabilities (June 10) and for prisoners (Nov. 6).

Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.