Pope sees banner first year, but expectations high
VATICAN CITY — From his simple sound bites to his breaking of Vatican rules, Pope Francis has made being Catholic cool in his first year.
He might not like his superstar status, but he certainly knows how to work a crowd and he has endeared himself to the public for looking out for the poor and radically shifting the church’s focus to mercy rather than moralizing.
“Now, people are happy to say ‘Well, actually I am a Catholic,’ and sometimes they’re quite keen to let themselves be known as a Catholic,” British Cardinal Vincent Nichols said. “And I think that’s the effect of Pope Francis. There is credibility around the Catholic project.”
But not everyone is thrilled and expectations are high for his second year, with high-profile travel, Vatican reform and discussion on hot-button issues like family and sex on the agenda.
The anniversary of Francis’ papacy is Thursday. Here’s a look at some key moments in Francis’ first year that give insight to what the future may hold for the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.
FRANCIS THE RULE-BREAKER
Francis believes the church has too many “small-minded” rules and hasn’t been shy about breaking them. Just two weeks after being elected, he washed the feet of a woman and Muslim during a Holy Thursday ceremony reenacting Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet. Vatican rules state it should be performed on men only.
“People were reacting, ‘God, he’s breaking the rules!’” noted Monsignor Paul Tighe, No. 2 in the Vatican’s social communications office. “But in a sense he was bringing us back to the radicality of the choice of Jesus.”
Francis has declared at least two saints without going through the Vatican’s miracle-confirmation protocol, not to mention his decision to shun the papal apartments for the Vatican hotel.
Will Francis break another rule barring divorced and civilly remarried Catholics from receiving Communion? He has called a church-wide, two-year debate on the issue starting in October. But even proponents of a more merciful approach endorsed by Francis insist core doctrine won’t change.
AT THE COPA-COPACABANA
Francis’ flouting of rules has extended to security: He ditched the armored popemobile for his first foreign trip to Brazil, and was swarmed by adoring crowds in Rio de Janeiro when his motorcade took a wrong turn.
The Rio trip was also a watershed because he uttered the now-famous words “Who am I to judge” about gays on the flight home. It set the stage for a radical shift in tone about church teaching on homosexuality and opened the debate on whether the church could endorse civil unions — another issue that will come up at the October synod.
Not everyone is pleased. Traditionalist and some conservative Catholics have ranted about the pope’s actions, saying it confuses the faithful and undermines church teaching.
“Pope Francis has begun a revolution, and like every revolution there are groups who are opposed to the reformers,” Vatican commentator Marco Politi noted. “This is only the tip of an iceberg of opposition and resistance.”
A JESUIT FRANCISCAN OR A FRANCISCAN JESUIT?
If there ever was an indication the Jesuit from Argentina would be a very different kind of pope, it was his decision to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century friar who gave up his wealth to minister to the poor.
The “slum pope,” who is the first pontiff to name himself Francis, has made cold-calls to the sick, elderly and unemployed, and took to heart the saint’s call to “rebuild my church” through a process of radical reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy.
“He is a Jesuit, but he’s very Franciscan in his attitude,” said the Rev. Murray Bodo, author of nearly two dozen books on Franciscan spirituality. “Every opportunity that he has he’ll call attention to inequality in the economy, to the injustice in economic systems.”
But he is still very much a Jesuit, with the Society of Jesus’ trademark missionary zeal and collaborative but authoritarian style of governance.
When Pope Benedict XVI abdicated, he insisted he would remain “hidden from the world” in prayer. But Francis has slowly coaxed him out of retirement and given him an increasingly public role in the church, believing that he shouldn’t be packed away in a museum like a “statue.”
Benedict recently joined Francis for the elevation of 19 new cardinals, was interviewed for an upcoming book on Pope John Paul II and took time to write to an Italian journalist insisting he hadn’t been pressured to resign. He’ll likely have a cameo at John Paul’s April 27 canonization.
With Benedict increasingly back in the spotlight, comparisons to his more crowd-pleasing successor will likely come to the fore, for better or worse.
“To put it very simply, to understand Benedict, you’ve got to read what he writes,” said Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster. “To understand Francis, you have to look at what he does.”
Francis has a high-profile trip to the Holy Land in May and a visit to South Korea in August where he will likely make an impassioned plea for peace on the divided peninsula.
In between, he must forge ahead with the unsettling reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy, where he has created a new finance secretariat to parallel the secretariat of state and where an overhaul of the scandal-marred Vatican bank looms large.
October will see the synod on the family. Surveys sent to ordinary Catholics around the world show the vast majority reject church teaching on contraception, divorce and homosexuality.
With expectations so high, it seems almost fitting that Francis marked the anniversary of his historic election on a weeklong silent retreat away from the Vatican.
But a friend, Claudio Epelman, an Argentine Jew who joined Francis for Christmas dinner for seven years while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, said Francis was up to the task.
“He will surprise us. Don’t ask me how because I don’t know,” Edelman said. “But he will go even farther than the expectations.”