By Isabella Piro
Closeness, synodality and missionary impetus: these are the cornerstones of the Pontificate of Pope Francis, who was elected eight years ago to the Chair of St. Peter. The perspective of his Pontificate starts from below, from the attention paid to those existential and geographical “peripheries” that act as a counterpoint to his being and acting. Inviting all to recover “the original freshness of the Gospel,” he urges the faithful to take up a new fervor and dynamism so that the love of Jesus can truly reach everyone. The Church desired by Pope Francis is an “outgoing” Church, with “open doors,” a “field hospital” that is not afraid of the “revolution of tenderness” or “the miracle of kindness.”
Newness and Evangelii gaudium, guiding text of the Pontificate
As the first Pope with the name “Francis”, the first Jesuit and the first native of Latin America, but also the first Pontiff of modern times elected following the resignation of his predecessor, Pope Francis began his pontificate under the banner of newness, notably presiding at the daily Mass at Casa Santa Marta, where he decided – another new fact – to reside.
In those short homilies, delivered spontaneously in the style of a parish priest, the Pope establishes a direct dialogue with the faithful, urging them to an immediate confrontation with the Word of God. The year 2013 was also marked by the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii gaudium”, a true ‘guiding manifesto’ of the new Pontificate, in which Pope Francis calls for a new evangelization characterized by joy, as well as the reform of ecclesial structures and the conversion of the papacy, so that they may be more missionary and closer to the purpose intended by Jesus. For this reason, also in 2013, the Pope established a “Council of Cardinals” whose task is to study a project to revise the Apostolic Constitution “Pastor bonus” on the Roman Curia, dating back to 1988.
The family was the 2014 pastoral focus of Pope Francis, who dedicated an extraordinary synod to it. For the Pontiff, contemporary individualistic society severely attacks the family, putting at risk the rights of children and parents, particularly in the area of moral and religious education. This theme of the family finds its high point in the Apostolic Exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” released on April 8, 2016, in which Pope Francis emphasizes the importance and beauty of the family based on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman. The Pope also looks realistically at the fragilities experienced by some people, such as remarried divorcees, encouraging pastors to discern.
From the point of view of reform, the establishment in 2014 of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors is significant. Its purpose is to propose initiatives to the Pontiff to “promote the responsibility of the particular Churches in the protection of all minors and vulnerable adults.” On the diplomatic front, Pope Francis’ 2014 was marked by two major initiatives: the first is the “Invocation for Peace“ in the Holy Land, held 8 June in the Vatican Gardens together with the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the president of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas. The second is the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. The Pontiff shows commitment to this objective in letters sent to the heads of state of the two countries.
The year 2015 was centered on the safeguarding of Creation. On May 24, Pope Francis signed the Encyclical “Laudato si’ on Care of our Common Home,” whose central point is integral ecology, in which concern for nature, fair treatment of the poor and commitment to society are inseparable. In this regard, the Pontiff instituted the ecumenical “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation,” to be celebrated every year on September 1. On the reform front, meanwhile, work continued on the new apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, which will later have as its title, albeit provisional, “Praedicate Evangelium”.
In the meantime, the “Vatileaks 2” case, on the leakage of confidential documents of the Holy See, broke out. The Pope called it “a deplorable act” at the Angelus on 8 November, because “stealing documents is a crime.” After due process at the Vatican Tribunal, the case closed in July 2016, with two convictions and two acquittals.
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy
Mercy, certainly, was the common thread of 2016: it was the Year in which the Extraordinary Jubilee announced by Pope Francis under the theme “Be merciful like the Father” took place. The concern for the least was made concrete with the “Fridays of Mercy,” during which the Pope made private visits to facilities dedicated to welcoming the poor, the sick and the marginalized. This was a “widespread” Jubilee that also saw the possibility of opening a Holy Door in every church in the world. Pope Francis himself, even before opening that of the Vatican Basilica, symbolically opened another: that of the Cathedral of Bangui, in the Central African Republic, where he visited during an apostolic journey in November 2015.
Moreover, in 2016, a momentous event took place: on February 12, in Cuba, the Pope met Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. Together, they signed a joint declaration, in which they pledged to respond to the challenges of the contemporary world, including ending the persecution of Christians and wars; promoting interreligious dialogue; helping migrants and refugees; and protecting life and the family.
World Day of the Poor
The year 2017 was marked by a remarkable act as well, which is part of that diplomacy of peace promoted by Pope Francis. On 20 September, 2017, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Holy See was among the first countries to sign and ratify the “Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” On the pastoral front, however, the year was marked by the celebration of the first “World Day of the Poor”, an occasion that aims to be - the Pope emphasizes - a reminder that it is precisely in the indigent that “the presence of Jesus is manifested”. Therefore, they open the way to heaven” and are our “passport to paradise”.
Agreement with China
There are two, however, highlights of Pope Francis’ 2018. On a pastoral level, the Synod on Youth represented a moment of ecclesial reflection. The Pope asked young people to “listen, make themselves close, bear witness,” because “faith is a matter of encounter, not theory.” This is an appeal that will become even stronger in the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation “Christus vivit,” signed in 2019. “You are God’s now,” Francis writes in the document, asking young people not to back down in the face of the challenges of the contemporary world and to devote attention to the least. On the diplomatic front, however, the Provisional Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, signed in Beijing on 22 September concerning the appointment of bishops, stands out in 2018. Then, in 2020, this agreement would be renewed for two years.
The fight against abuse
2018 saw the opening of a very bitter page for the Catholic Church, namely that of the abuse committed by some members of the clergy: the cases relating to Cardinal George Pell who was tried in Australia and then acquitted after 13 months spent unjustly in prison, and the former Chilean priest Ferdinand Karadima, later removed from the clerical state by Pope Francis, as well as the publication of the “Pennsylvania Report“ in the United States, highlighting the importance of the fight against this crime carried out with determination by the Pope. In August, at the end of his Apostolic Journey to Ireland, Pope Francis made a touching “Penitential Act“ to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the Church. In the same period, the “McCarrick Case” related to the former Cardinal responsible for sexual abuse of minors who was later dismissed from the clerical state in 2019 came into the media limelight. It was an issue to which the Holy See would later respond with a special “Report,” prepared by the Secretary of State under mandate from the Pope and released on November 10, 2020.
The fight against abuse continued during 2019 with the Vatican Summit on the Protection of Minors. From that meeting came the Motu proprio “Vos estis lux mundi,” which introduces an obligation for clerics and religious to report abuse, while each diocese is to have a system easily accessible to the public to receive reports. In December, the Pope also abolished pontifical secrecy in cases of sexual abuse through a Rescript.
Fraternity, peace and Christian unity
The year 2019 provided the backdrop for three major gestures: the first is the signing of the Document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed by the Pope and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahamad al-Tayyib in Abu Dhabi on February 4. It was a milestone in relations between Christianity and Islam, and the document encourages the strengthening of interreligious dialogue and promotes mutual respect, condemning terrorism and violence.
The second gesture was the organization of a spiritual retreat at the Vatican for civil and ecclesiastical leaders of South Sudan. The meeting took place in April and ended with a shocking act: Pope Francis knelt down and kissed the feet of the president of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and the designated vice presidents in attendance. He did so to “implore that the fire of war be extinguished once and for all” in the young African country.
The third gesture, finally, was aimed towards Christian unity: on June 29, Pope Francis gave a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople some fragments of St. Peter’s relics. As the Pontiff himself writes in a Letter to Patriarch Bartholomew I, this gift “is meant to be a confirmation of the journey that our Churches have made in order to draw closer together.
Economic and financial reforms
As part of the reforms, in August 2019, the Pope renewed the Statute of the IOR (Insitute of Works for Religion) with a chirograph, introducing the position of external auditor to audit the accounts. This decision was followed, at the end of 2020, by the new Statute of the Financial Information Authority, which would henceforth be called the Supervisory and Financial Information Authority (ASIF), and by the Motu proprio “Regarding certain competencies in economic and financial matters,” by which the management of funds and properties of the Secretariat of State, including Peter’s pence, is transferred to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), while the supervisory role of the Secretariat for the Economy is strengthened.
Prayers during the pandemic
In 2020, the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pope Francis remained close to the faithful with the constant force of prayer. The whole world remembers the “Statio Orbis“ presided over on March 27 by the Pope, alone, in front of a deserted and rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square. Distance, necessary to contain the spread of the virus, was shortened by technology. For some time, the General Audiences and the recitation of the Angelus were broadcast live on audio-video, as were the morning Masses at Casa Santa Marta.
In February, his fifth Apostolic Exhortation “Querida Amazonia“ was published. It gathers together the fruits of the special Synod for the Pan-American Region held in the Vatican in 2019. Later in October, the Pope’s third Encyclical, “Fratelli tutti” was published. This Encyclical, further clarifying the salient features of this Pontificate, calls for fraternity and social friendship and reiterates the rejection of war to build a better world, with the commitment of all.
Apostolic journeys with an eye towards the peripheries
The year 2020 closed with the announcement of the historic Apostolic Journey to Iraq, which ended in recent days. It was the first time of a Successor of Peter visited the country. After a 15-month hiatus due to the pandemic, Pope Francis continues to bring the light and beauty of the Gospel to the world, turning his gaze, once again, to the peripheries, where “fraternity and hope” are urgently needed.
However, his first trip as Pontiff, on July 8, 2013, had Lampedusa as its destination. From that island - a place of desperate disembarking - the Pope put the global spotlight on the drama of migration, a major theme of his Pontificate. Pope Francis often reiterates how all migrants are first and foremost people, not just numbers or social issues, and he does so not only with words, but also with deeds. It is enough to remember the decision he made in April 2016, upon returning from a visit to the Lesbos refugee camp: on the papal flight, Pope Francis welcomed 12 Syrian refugees and accompanied them to Rome so they could be helped.
Some statistical data
So far, Pope Francis has made 25 trips within Italy and 33 outside the Peninsula. But the figures of his Pontificate speak of more than 340 General Audiences, more than 450 Angelus/Regina Coeli, nearly 790 homilies at Casa Santa Marta and about 900 new Saints, including the 800 martyrs of Otranto. Pope Francis has also held 7 Consistories, creating 101 Cardinals, and called several Special Years, such as those dedicated to Consecrated Life (2015-2016), St. Joseph (2020-2021) and Family, Amoris Laetitia (2021-2022). There are also several “Days” instituted by Francis: the last, in chronological order, is the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly, which will be celebrated for the first time in July 2021, around the same time as the anniversary of Saints Joachim and Anne, the “grandparents” of Jesus.
(This is a working translation from the original Italian)