On his return flight to Rome from Bangladesh on Dec. 2, Pope Francis provided a glimpse of his hopes for 2018 when, asked by a journalist if he planned to visit India, he noted in his answer, “I hope to do it in 2018 if I’m alive!”
The comment captures much of what the world might expect from Pope Francis in 2018 — bold willingness to set out and encounter those who are far away, but with the awareness that, especially with this pope, there likely will be surprises along the way.
Pope Francis has hinted at the issues and themes he could address over the course of the year. His message for World Day of Peace on Jan. 1 looks at “migrants and refugees — men and women in search of peace,” a theme that echoes the ongoing Share the Journey campaign, launched in 2017 as the pope’s global call for local churches to find ways to stand in solidarity with migrants. For World Day Vocations, April 22, Pope Francis looks ahead to the October Synod of Bishops focused on young people’s discernment of vocations. And perhaps most provocatively, his message for World Day of Communications, May 13, is “‘The truth will set you free’ (Jn 8:32). Fake news and journalism for peace.”
The pope’s first overseas trip, to Chile and Peru from Jan. 15-22, will be his sixth trip to Latin America — preceded by Brazil in 2013; Bolivia, Paraguay and Cuba in 2015; Mexico (with a layover in Cuba where he met Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill) in 2016; and Colombia in 2017. It’s inherently significant for this pope to be present to the region of the world where he was born and which he called home until his election at age 76. While he conducts his ministry as bishop of Rome almost entirely in Italian, which he learned from his parents and grandparents, Pope Francis still carries an Argentine passport, despite his native Argentina being one country he has yet to visit as pope.
The pope’s time in Chile will include a visit to a women’s penitentiary in Santiago on Jan. 16, echoing meetings with prisoners he’s held on other foreign trips, including his 2015 visit to the United States. In Peru, his travels will include a Jan. 19 meeting with indigenous people of the Amazonian region, a gesture that has even greater significance in light of the October 2017 announcement that the Vatican will hold a Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019.
Families and young people
Another major event for the Church in 2018 is the Aug. 21-26 World Meeting of Families in Dublin. An international event held every three years, the meeting brings families together to pray and reflect on the importance of marriage and family in society. The theme of the 2018 meeting is “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World.”
The anticipated participation of Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families would mark the first papal visit to the country since Pope St. John Paul II in 1979. Like the celebration of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, this gathering once again would find the pope visiting a local Church that has been rocked by revelations of sexual abuse of minors. Amid official reports of thousands of children being abused over decades, Pope Benedict XVI even wrote a letter of apology in 2010 to the Catholics of Ireland.
Also, as he did in 2015, Pope Francis will follow the celebration of the World Meeting of Families with a high-profile gathering of the Synod of Bishops. The Oct. 3-28 15th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will discuss the theme “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.” Brazilian Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, 58, will serve as relator general of the gathering, a central role of summarizing themes and discussions, which the future Pope Francis also served in as a recently appointed cardinal at the 2001 synod. Cardinal da Rocha was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis in 2016.
While lacking a neuralgic issue such as the prospect of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, as was the case at the 2014-15 synod gatherings, the theme of young people is still a high-stakes issue, given the steep rise in the number of young adults who don’t affiliate with any religion at all. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, addressed the topic at length in his November 2016 address to the Fall General Assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, shortly after the theme of the 2018 gathering was announced.
“Young people need to be accompanied in discerning their path in life, but this accompaniment presupposes welcoming them to better integrate them into the life of the Church,” Archbishop Pierre said. He added, “The upcoming synod and the preparation for it provide a window for us to learn from young people, to listen to them, to be with them, and to help them discover God’s plan for them. Our presence will remind them that they matter; that they are part of the family; that they belong. Rejecting the throwaway culture, we will give them reason to hope by assuring them that we are on the journey with them.”
Toward the goal of listening to and learning from young people, in addition to questionnaires and other preparation the Vatican has made for the synod, a pre-synod meeting with young people will take place in Rome from March 19-24.
In terms of appointments made by Pope Francis and his imprint on the leadership of the Church, six out of the 120 cardinal electors will turn 80 in 2018 (all in the first half of the year), losing their vote in a future conclave to elect a pope. This creates a small opening for Pope Francis to name new cardinals, presuming he continues to observe the limit of 120 voting cardinals put in place by Blessed Pope Paul VI. In June 2017, Pope Francis closed a similar gap by naming only five new cardinals.
Pope Francis will turn 82 in December, putting him nearer the upper end of the age range of popes of the past century (Blessed Paul VI, St. John XXIII and Pius XII died at ages 80, 81 and 82 respectively; John Paul II and Benedict XVI reigned till ages 84 and 85, respectively). If the Holy See were to become vacant at the start of 2018, for reasons of death or resignation, 120 cardinals would be eligible to vote, with 49 of them (41 percent) named to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis, 52 (43 percent) appointed by Benedict XVI and 19 (16 percent) appointed by John Paul II.
In the United States in 2018, seven diocesan bishops will turn 75, the age at which they are required to submit their resignation to the pope. They will join the four U.S. dioceses already awaiting the appointment of a new bishop, whether due to vacancy or their bishop reaching retirement age. Of the 188 Latin rite dioceses and archdioceses in the United States, 66 of them, or 35 percent, have a bishop or archbishop appointed there by Pope Francis.
Don Clemmer is managing editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @clemmer_osv.