Francis 10 Years On

March 06 2023 | by

WHEN he appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, just hours after being elected pope, the man who stunned the world by taking the name Francis showed he also had a wry sense of humor.

“You all know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome,” he said. “It seems that my brother cardinals have come almost to the ends of the earth to get him.” 

The fact that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio hailed from Argentina – becoming the first pope from Latin America – wasn’t the only novelty that was immediately obvious. He was also the first Jesuit to be elected pope, and beyond that, by choosing the Poor Man of Assisi as his namesake, he was sending a clear signal of his priorities. As he would say a few days later, his dream was a “poor Church for the poor.”


Humbler living quarters


Pope Francis’ desire for a simpler, humbler Church was underscored when it was announced that he had made the decision to forgo living in the Apostolic Palace and, instead, move into the Santa Marta residence with several dozen other Roman curial officials inside the Vatican.

“Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it?” Francis asked during his inauguration Mass on March 19. “Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by the three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross.”

The stylistic changes of the new papacy were given substantive weight when, in November 2013, Francis released what in many ways is the blueprint of his papacy, his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

Ten years later, it remains the best guide for interpreting where this papacy has been and where it is going.

The document makes clear that Francis believed the Church’s government had become too centralized, often ignoring the needs of those on the margins, and often impeding the Church’s top priority: the teaching and preaching of the Gospel.

“The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion,” he wrote.

Pope Francis also made it clear that he would have noticeably different areas of emphasis by spotlighting economic inequalities and fighting social injustices as top concerns.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” the Oope pointedly asked in the document. 


Globalization of indifference


During his first papal trip outside of Rome, Francis chose not to go to a European capital, but instead to the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just south of Sicily, in order to pay tribute to the thousands of migrants who die at sea attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There, he lambasted the “globalization of indifference” towards migrants and other suffering peoples and made it clear that the Church was on their side.

In the 40 international papal trips he has made over the last ten years, that same philosophy has driven his decisions on where to travel, becoming the first pope to visit places like Iraq, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. A decade later, he has still yet to make a homecoming pilgrimage to his native Argentina.


Hot button issues


Soon after his election, Francis began his efforts to revive the Church’s synod process, a fruit of the Second Vatican Council meant to offer greater consultation to Catholic bishops from around the world. To date, he’s held four major synods: two on the issues of family life (2014, 2015), one on young people (2018) and another on the Amazon region (2019). At every turn, the synods have proven to be flashpoints in his papacy, with his allies cheering the new pastoral directions in which he is guiding the Church and his detractors using the synods to draw battlelines over certain theological debates.

Despite some criticism, the Pope hasn’t backed down. In 2020 the Vatican announced that the next synod would be on the theme of creating a more synodal Church that provides more opportunities for listening, participation and that takes the laity more seriously. To prove the point, the process was expanded to a phased two-year listening process with consultation stages at both the diocesan and continental levels ahead of major summits in Rome in October 2023 and October 2024. So far, the synod hasn’t shied away from discussing some of the Church’s most hot button topics: the clergy sexual abuse crisis, LGBTQ issues, the role of women in the Church and much more.


Empowerment of women


Over the last decade, Francis has also begun to remake the Church’s top leadership by both choosing new cardinals from areas of the globe that are often overlooked or underserved and by appointing bishops who share his pastoral priorities, selecting over 60 percent of the cardinals who will one day elect his successor. Under Francis, the nations of East Timor and Tongo now have cardinals, while the cities of Milan and Paris do not.

Those changes have reverberated inside the Vatican, where Francis has slowly began appointing women and laity to top jobs – something once considered unthinkable until he arrived on the scene.

In March 2022, after nearly a decade-long process, Francis released a new constitution for the Vatican that overhauled the Church’s central bureaucracy. Under the title of Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), the 54-page document emphasizes that evangelization is the central task of the Church – and makes clear it is not just a job for clerics.

Among its most significant changes, the new constitution states that “any member of the faithful can preside over a dicastery,” an update to the previous 1988 constitution, which declared that Vatican offices are headed by a “cardinal prefect or the presiding archbishop,” which now paves the way for lay men and women to begin assuming new roles within the Vatican.


Various setbacks


In 2013, when the cardinals gathered from around the world to elect the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, they made it clear that reform was at the top of their agenda. The Vatican’s finances lacked transparency and the Church’s moral credibility was seriously diminished as the sexual abuse crisis continued to roil the Church around the globe. Ten years later, unfinished business remains on both fronts.

In 2019 Francis took the unprecedented step of calling Church leaders from around the globe to Rome for a major summit on abuse, pledging a new era of transparency, responsibility and accountability. The summit helped produce changes in Church law to create structures for reporting and investigating bishops who cover up for abuser priests. Nearly four years later, however, the process remains shrouded in secrecy, with investigations taking far too long and with little communications to victims or the people of God about the status of certain cases.

On the financial reform front, Francis continued the changes implemented by Pope Benedict of an annual outside audit of the Vatican Bank. In addition – and in a remarkable first – the Secretariat for the Economy, an office Francis created in 2014, has now published public accounts of all of the annual income and expenditures of Vatican offices. While such measures count as serious progress, scandals have continued that cast a shadow over the finance clean-up operations, most notably the spectacle of London investment property that the Vatican was forced to sell at a loss of approximately 140 million euros.


Mobility issues


In February 2022, Francis began to experience severe mobility issues due to an injury in his right knee that forced him to cancel several trips and limits the extent to which he is able to preside over public Masses. After several months, speculation began to mount that the now 86-year-old pontiff might be considering resignation, but Francis has sought to quickly put an end to those rumors by adding more trips to his calendar, extending the synod process and making plans to open the Jubilee Year in 2025 – all signs that he believes the work of reform must continue, and that he plans to oversee it.  As he stated on numerous occasions, “One governs with the head, not the knee.”

Updated on February 24 2023