A remarkable year for the Papacy

Pope Francis faces a daunting task in coming months to bring about some much-needed reforms in the Vatican, writes Michael Kelly

Just 12 months ago the remarkable changes in the Catholic Church would’ve seemed almost impossible. Anyone who suggested last Christmas that Pope Benedict XVI would give up the papacy would surely have been the subject of ridicule. But that’s exactly what happened on an idle Monday morning in February when Benedict, with his characteristic understated style, announced – in Latin – to the assembled cardinals that within weeks he would step down from his Petrine ministry and they would meet to elect a new Pope.

Anyone who doubts the Catholic Church’s ability to recreate itself and manage change must look back on the past 12 months with a mixture of awe and amazement. The ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Successor to St Peter, is central to the Church’s self-understanding. To Peter and his successors are given the task of confirming the faith of Catholics and encouraging the Church to constantly renew and reform itself to an ever more attentive reading of the Gospel.


Benedict XVI is unlikely ever to get the credit he deserves, but his decision to stand down has dramatically transformed the papacy and laid the foundations for the remarkable first months of the pontificate of Francis. In stepping aside, Benedict XVI demystified the papacy and has made it possible for his successors to one day retire from being Pope. It’s paradoxical, in a sense, that the most extraordinary papal move of 2013 in a year of extraordinary symbolism was the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to step down. Benedict has also confounded the worriers who speculated that the retired Pope living within the Vatican would never work. There has not been, as some predicted, a rival court. Pope emeritus Benedict has remained silent and only occasionally appeared at public events since his standing down on February 28.


Pope Francis faces a daunting task in coming months to bring about some much-needed reforms in the Vatican. No less daunting is the challenge to the entire Church to adopt a fresh missionary footing. Catholics rightly look to the Pope as the chief shepherd of the universal Church, but the Pope is limited in what he can do.

Francis, in his recent apostolic exhortation, said that when people come seeking God they must find the Church open – he was talking about more than unlocked doors. The Pope is asking priests and parishioners all across the Church to ensure that we have open, welcoming communities. People are captivated by Pope Francis, but where they encounter the Church is in their local parish, and unless people feel a welcome there, they will not reengage with the Pope’s challenge.