For Pope Francis, 2015 will be a big year

On his way back from South Korea in August, Pope Francis told journalists that he didn’t imagine his pontificate would be long. “Two or three years,” he said, smiling, “and then to the Father’s house!” Whether or not he is right, 2015 will prove decisive for the success of his ambitious reforms.

It is easy to imagine commentators this time next year lining up to give their verdict. Did the reorganization of the Roman Curia plan go smoothly, or is the Vatican sulking and rebellious? Did the ecology encyclical convert hearts and minds, positioning the Church at the heart of contemporary debates, or did it alienate experts by its bad science? Did the apostolic trips — Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Latin America and, above all, the United States — confirm Pope Francis’ rock-star status, or expose the limits of his charm? Above all, did next October’s ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family prove him right — that the Holy Spirit, at work in the process, will unite the Church around new, exciting pastoral possibilities, or did divisions deepen and the process end in squabbles and paralysis?

Visit to Asia

The year will begin with a major apostolic visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, building on his priority of opening up Asia, the cradle of a major part of Christianity’s future. It is hard not to imagine both as successes. In Sri Lanka, where small Christian, Muslim and Hindu minorities face an often intolerant Buddhist majority, the visit will provoke tension, but it will also show Pope Francis’ extraordinary capacity for bridge-building across divides.

In the Philippines, one of the world’s largest Catholic countries, his visit will showcase the youth and vibrancy of Asian Catholicism, sending important messages above all to China. It will also be a moment for the pope’s vision of the Church as a battlefield hospital. In his moving encounters with typhoon survivors, the world will glimpse the Church’s vast capacity for aid and charity.

Consistory, reform

Just as it was last February, the weeks before Lent will be among Rome’s busiest. Pope Francis’ council of nine cardinals will lay out their plans for the restructuring of the Curia, which will then be put to the whole college of cardinals, known as a consistory, which the pope will also use to create perhaps a dozen new red hats. Having gotten the cardinals to buy into the broad outline of the Vatican shakeup — two new congregations, for laity and for charity, will house many of existing pontifical councils, while overlapping functions will be reduced by streamlining and amalgamating others — a new juridical document will be drawn up to map the changes.

Also key to the broader Vatican shakeup will be finance and communications. The first is already well advanced under the new secretariat, while the second is awaiting the report from Lord Christopher Patten’s commission.

Behind the changes are not just efficiency and transparency but the vision of a Vatican that serves, rather than stifles, the local Church; and that which enables the pope more effectively to fulfill his mission. That means a new curial culture of service, rather than entitlement, and of vocation, rather than privilege. Encyclical, another trip

The second major teaching document from Pope Francis, on ecology, currently is scheduled for March. It likely will wade into a huge range of sensitive topics — among them: climate change, population, development, as well as patterns of growth and consumption — that will plunge Catholics into contemporary debates. The ecology encyclical is above all an opportunity to locate the Church’s voice in the poor South, which disproportionately bears the brunt of the rich world’s policies. Expect a deeply challenging document that will be one of Pope Francis’ major teaching legacies.

The pope also has spoken of going next year to Latin America, while ruling out a visit to his own country of Argentina until 2016. Given that he has already been to Brazil, the smart money is on Central America, where he is likely to beatify and maybe also canonize Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, whose cause Pope Francis unblocked shortly after his election. It would be a highly symbolic moment for Latin America, but above all for the vision for caring for the poor outlined by the Conference of Latin American Bishops in 1968. Given Pope Francis’ opposition, while a young Jesuit, to certain Marxist-influenced strands of liberation theology, but his embrace of the option for the poor, this will be a significant moment for the Latin-American Church.

Synod, U.S.-bound

The major test for Pope Francis this year remains the Synod of Bishops and its ambitious project of formulating new pastoral strategies to bolster marriage while allowing large numbers of Catholics to be reconciled with the Church. The pope has insisted that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s role has been to challenge the Church to open its thinking rather than to propose a particular solution, and that his own role is not to take sides but to guide a process of discernment similar to the early Church councils.

Yet there remains suspicion on the part of some cardinals that Pope Francis is taking sides and creating unnecessary confusion. The pope’s goals are clear: to enable the Church to open its doors to those with failed marriages while giving couples the understanding and strength to embark on a permanent marriage in a public culture that has largely abandoned the concept. If the synod produces an effective plan for those objectives, he will have succeeded.

His visit to Philadelphia at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families will be key to fulfilling that goal. He will come to the United States enjoying massive popularity outside the Church but some suspicion inside it as many American Catholics, including bishops, worry that Pope Francis views both them and the United States, generally, through a left-wing, Latin American lens. But in his addresses to Congress and the United Nations calling for a renewal of politics as service, he has a heaven-sent opportunity to place the Church at the heart of public debate. Even without the expected visit to the U.S.-Mexican border, the visit will be a firecracker.

He then returns to Rome for the synod, when delegates of the world’s bishops’ conferences discuss and vote on concrete proposals that will shape the next generation’s witness to the family. If the U.S. visit, the synod and the curial reforms all end well, Pope Francis will spend the rest of his papacy — however short or long — reaping the harvest.

Austen Ivereigh’s new papal biography is “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).