Ten years of Pope Francis at the helm of the Catholic Church
Ten years ago this month, Pope Francis emerged on the balcony at St Peter’s, dressed simply in a white cassock, humbly asking the crowd to pray for him. The first Jesuit Pope and the first from outside Europe since the 8th century, he chose the name “Francis” in honour of St Francis of Assisi because of his concern for the poor. When asked by journalist Antonio Spadaro “Who is Bergoglio?” he said movingly, “I am a sinner who the Lord has looked upon.”
His papacy has undoubtedly shaken up the establishment. Pope Francis is loved and admired by many and despised by others. His adamantly anti-clerical stance and prioritising pastoral care over dogma and doctrine have evoked a strongly adverse reaction towards him among many of those in significant leadership roles in the church. Nevertheless, he understands the complexity of human experience and emphasises the church as a “field hospital” and a place of mercy and welcome.
Much of his work responds to urgent issues. In part as a response to the climate change crisis, an early encyclical, Laudato Si, highlights the importance of creation and the spiritual imperative to protect it. He convened a summit on clergy sexual abuse in Rome in February 2019 and followed up with an important document, Vos estis lux mundi, laying out procedures to combat sexual abuse.
Pope Francis has faced opposition from traditional and conservative elements in the church over many issues. These include banning the Tridentine Latin Mass and his insistence that the Eucharist is a “remedy for the sick and not a prize for the perfect”. In addition, his consistent message that the marginalised, particularly the LGBTQ+ community, are to be welcomed has been contentious. Finally, the appointment of women to leadership roles in the Vatican and the establishment of commissions to examine the possibility of women deacons have been controversial issues.
Francis has called for the decriminalisation of homosexuality – crucial in Catholic countries like Uganda, where an anti-homosexuality bill passed by the government this month includes the imposition of the death penalty.
On the other side, those favouring the priestly ordination of women are frustrated by his insistence that the church has no authority to ordain women. Similarly, those calling for the ordination of married men, especially in places like the Amazon and countries like Germany, feel the pace of change is too slow to meet current pastoral needs.
At key moments he has been a pastor to humanity. Who can forget the powerful image of the Pope standing alone in a rainy deserted St Peter’s Square on 27 March 2020 at the height of the pandemic and praying for the world?
Arguably, Pope Francis’s most important contribution is his emphasis on a synodal church in which he invites a culture of listening to the Spirit and discerning together. Formed in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, he recognises the importance of discerning the leading of the Spirit and listening to voices at the margins. As a result, the current Synod on Synodality is bringing the voices of lay, religious and clergy from every continent into dialogue on the critical issues of our time and the life of the church. This may be the catalyst needed to inspire a more discerning and inclusive way of being church and become the defining legacy of his papacy.