2019: A defining year for the Church and Pope Francis

2019: A defining year for the Church and Pope Francis Pope Francis twirls a soccer ball presented by a member of CirCuba, the Cuban national circus, during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican on January 2. Photo: CNS
Letter from Rome
Elise Harris


With 2019 already off to a running start, Vatican-watchers can expect a packed year of surprises, updates and new twists and turns. The to-do list includes the papal reform agenda, the clerical abuse crisis, international travel and possible new appointments to key dioceses and curial offices.

This spring alone will be a marathon for Pope Francis, beginning with his January 23-27 visit to Panama for the global World Youth Day gathering. He’ll take at least three other international trips before summer: to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), February 3-5; to Morocco, March 30-31; and to Bulgaria and Macedonia from May 5-7.

Rumour has it the Pope will also travel to Japan in the fall, fulfilling his long-time dream of travelling to the country as a missionary. However, the trip has yet to be confirmed.

In between trips to the UAE and Morocco, the Pope will oversee a February 21-24 gathering of the heads of all bishops’ conferences to address the clerical sex abuse crisis. Given the scandals that prompted the summit, many of which have instilled doubt in the minds of ordinary Catholics about Francis and his own credibility, the gathering is arguably the highest-stakes manoeuvre so far in Francis’s papacy.


Compounding the issue and reinforcing doubt in Francis on the abuse front were accusations in August from a former Vatican ambassador to the US, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who served as papal ambassador in Washington DC from 2001 to 2006.

On August 26, the last day of Francis’ overnight visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, Viganò released a statement asserting that he had informed Francis of sexual misconduct concerns against McCarrick in 2013, but that the Pope had failed to act. He called for Francis to resign and issued a series of accusations against other prelates in the Roman Curia who he said covered for McCarrick as part of a gay lobby.

In the wake of the uproar Viganò’s statement caused, the Vatican authorised a “thorough study” of their archives to determine how McCarrick was able to rise to power despite the fact that rumours of his sexual misconduct with priests and seminarians had been an open secret for years.

The Vatican promised the results of the study would be released “in due course”, and with those results yet to be published, it’s possible they’ll come sometime this year.

Other possible areas where the Pope will almost certainly make a move this year are the reform of the Roman Curia, specifically in the communications and financial sectors.

Due to last week’s resignations of Greg Burke and Paloma Garcia Ovejero, director and vice director respectively, of the Vatican Press Office, Francis will at some point have to fill their positions. With the appointments of veteran Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli and Italian professor Andrea Monda to the Vatican communications office, much of the final outcome of the reform has yet to be seen.

On the financial front, the Vatican in 2018 made major headway in the direction of achieving credibility and transparency, finally getting approval to enter the European banking system.

However, reform of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), a long-time source of concern when it comes to financial shenanigans in the Vatican, is still in the initial stages after the appointment of Archbishop Nunzio Galantino in June 2018. The New Year could bring either further progress, or further scandal, depending on which side of the coin lands face-up.


Also expected on the reform front for 2019 is the publication of the Pope’s new apostolic constitution outlining the role and structure of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s administrative bureaucracy, called Praedicate Evangelium (‘Preach the Gospel’).

A draft is being reviewed by the Pope after having been prepared and presented to him by his international Council of Cardinals – the so-called ‘C9’ – in June of last year.

When published, the document will replace John Paul II’s 1988 curial constitution, Pastor Bonus, and it will incorporate changes made by Francis during his five-year tenure, which so far have focused on simplification and decentralisation.

Also slated for 2019 is the highly-anticipated special Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, set to take place during the month of October and which is expected to focus largely on the plight of indigenous peoples in the Pan-Amazonian region – which includes parts of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guyana, Peru, Venezuela and Suriname – as well as the environment and missionary activity in the area.


However, since the release of the synod’s preparatory document, titled ‘Amazonia: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology’, in June 2018, rumours have been swirling that Francis could approve of the ordination to the priesthood of viri probati – a term referring to mature, married men – as a response to the priest shortage in the area.

According to the document, key themes for the meeting will include the role of women in the Church, the rights and traditions of indigenous people, and the exploration of new ways to provide greater access to the Eucharist in a region where numbers of clergy are slim, with many speculating that the question of ordaining viri probati men will not only be put forward by bishops from the Amazon, but welcomed by the Pope.

It’s also possible that Francis will hold another consistory, naming new cardinals as he’s done every year apart from 2013, the year he was elected Bishop of Rome.

Many heavy-hitters this year who reach 75, the age when prelates are obliged to submit their retirement letters to the Pope, could be replaced, as well as others who have surpassed the age of retirement but have remained in their positions with replacements yet to be announced.

Key prelates who could be replaced this year are Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, who has been archbishop of Abuja since 1994 and who will turn 75 on January 29; Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who will turn 75 in April; Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, who will turn 75 in June; Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who will also turn 75 in June; Cardinal Luis Cipriani, archbishop of Lima, who turned 75 on December 28 last year; Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, who will be 77 this year, and Cardinal Wilfred Napier of Durban, South Africa, who will be 78.

Along with these possible retirements is the expectation of the appointment of a new archbishop of Washington following the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl on October 12, largely due to pressure following the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report over allegations that he mishandled abuse cases while serving as archbishop of Pittsburg.

In an unprecedented move, Wuerl resigned and was named apostolic administrator, a temporary position overseeing the diocese until a successor is named, and his replacement has been appointed.

With all this and more expected in the months to come, 2019 could turn out to be a defining year for both Pope Francis and the global Catholic Church.

Elise Harris is the Senior Correspondent at Cruxnow.com