Pope Francis has a well-earned reputation as a pope of surprises. That makes it difficult to say with anything approaching certainty just what he will be doing in 2017.
Some things are set, of course; other things are thought to be likely. But it’s the things that no one anticipates — at this stage probably not even Francis himself — that may well generate the most interest.
With that caveat, it is possible to offer a more or less tentative overview of how the year ahead currently shapes up for the pope. One thing is for sure: For Francis, these 12 months are going to be crowded both with attention-grabbing events and with tough decisions.
Francis on the road
Some time during the year — perhaps in the next three months — Pope Francis is likely to fly to Colombia for a visit lasting several days. If he goes, he undoubtedly will cover several bases while he’s there, but high up on his list will be to give his blessing to a settlement putting an end to a yearslong conflict between the Colombian government and a leftist guerrilla group. The uncertainty about his plans concerns whether the peace agreement holds or not. This will be the third visit to Colombia by a pope and the first since Pope St. John Paul II went there more than 30 years ago.
In May, Pope Francis will travel to Fatima, Portugal, for ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the Blessed Virgin’s apparitions there. Starting May 13, 1917, and continuing monthly for the next six months, Mary appeared to three peasant children near the remote village of Fatima. Her message in these appearances, which occurred at the height of World War I, was a call to prayer for peace, including prayer for the conversion of Russia. The Church has declared the Fatima revelations “worthy of belief,” and the place where they happened is now a major attraction for pilgrims.
Francis has declared it “almost sure” that he will go to India and Bangladesh in 2017, and an African trip is said to be under serious consideration.
Close to home, he will make quick visits to two major Italian archdioceses: Milan, headed by Cardinal Angelo Scola, on March 25, and Genoa, headed by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, on May 27. Francis was scheduled to visit both places in 2016, but those trips were postponed because of his schedule during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Throughout the year, of course, the pope will continue his regular practice of meeting various groups in Rome. One of the largest of these encounters is expected at Pentecost, when Francis will greet thousands of members of the Charismatic Renewal movement who’ve come from the United States and other countries to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The Catholic charismatic movement had its beginning in 1967 during a retreat by students and staff at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Catholic charismatics worldwide are now said to number as many as 150 million.
Besides holding audiences for groups, Pope Francis will meet with hundreds of individuals. It’s likely the Vatican press corps already is salivating at the prospect of a possible meeting between President Donald Trump and the head of the Catholic Church — two world leaders with what appear to be strongly conflicting views on issues like climate change and immigration. To be sure, no pope-president meeting is known to be planned, but if Trump is anywhere near Rome during 2017, it’s hard to imagine him not dropping by to see the pope as other world leaders so often do.
During the year ahead, Francis also will resume the practice of meeting with bishops from various nations who’ve come for their ad limina visits to Rome. These are visits which bishops customarily make every five years or so to see the pope and Vatican officials and report on conditions in their local churches. Visits that would ordinarily have taken place during the jubilee year were postponed because of Francis’ crowded schedule, but the visits will start up again in 2017. Among the national groups expected in Rome next year are the bishops of Ireland and the bishops of the United States.
Amid the travels and the events, the pope seems certain to face numerous weighty issues in the months ahead. At this time two in particular stand out: Vatican relations with China and continuing controversy within the Church over Francis’ 2016 document on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”).
The Holy See and China’s authoritarian communist government have held intense discussions about restoring diplomatic relations and are said to be nearing an agreement. But the obstacles to closing the deal remain what they have been from the start: the government’s role in the appointment of bishops and the competing interests of the government-controlled “patriotic” Church as opposed to the “underground” Church loyal to Rome. Whether Pope Francis in 2017 will find a universally acceptable path out of the longstanding impasse on these matters is far from clear.
As for the controversy over Amoris Laetitia, it has reached the point where prominent figures, including even cardinals, are publicly sniping at one another.
While the argument in part concerns the document’s muted prescription that divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled be allowed to receive Communion in some circumstances, fundamental principles of sacramental and moral theology are in fact at stake in this dispute. Four cardinals recently asked the pope to clarify the meaning of his document on several key points, but Francis has remained silent so far, apparently wishing to let local bishops interpret it as they wish in their own dioceses. This, needless to say, has added to the confusion and the controversy.
Finally, many people expect Francis to have something to say next October for the 500th anniversary of the moment in 1517 when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his famous 95 dissenting theses to a church door and thereby launched the Protestant Reformation. Francis traveled to Sweden last October for a Lutheran World Federation event inaugurating the anniversary year. It hardly seems likely that he will allow the anniversary itself go by in 2017 without adding something to what he has already said about rapprochement between Catholics and Lutherans.
In short, 2017 shapes up as a year when this pope of surprises will have lots of opportunities to spring even more of them.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.