Pope Francis – A high impact year

Cathal Barry takes a look at the first year of Francis’ pontificate

Appearing on a balcony of St Peter's Basilica about an hour after white smoke from a chimney above the Sistine Chapel first signalled his election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced to the world by his birth name with the traditional proclamation of the Latin phrase "Habemus papam" (We have a pope).

Then came the announcement of the choice of his papal name: Francis.

Bergoglio's election came on the fifth ballot and second day of voting among the 115 cardinals who participated in the secret election. It was a surprisingly quick conclusion to a conclave that seemed to have no clear front-runner among the cardinals. 

Pope Francis' first word to a cheering crowd in an overflowing St Peter's Square was "Buonasera," Italian for "Good evening."

"You know the task of the conclave was to give Rome a bishop," the new pope continued, speaking Italian with a slight Spanish accent. "My brothers went to the end of the earth to get him," he said.


A pioneering Pontiff

By selecting Cardinal Bergoglio as the 266th successor to the throne of St Peter, the cardinals have forever enshrined this humble man’s name in the holy history books. 

The new Roman Pontiff is the first Argentinean Pope, indeed the first Pontiff from South America. He is also the first non-European Pope in over a century.

He is also the first Jesuit Pope and the first to choose Francis as his regnal name. 

In addition to some major Papal ‘firsts’, the media seemed to also pick up on some more trivial firsts intentionally executed by Pope Francis in the early hours of his Pontificate.

Some commentators noted he set a different style immediately when he appeared on the central balcony. Ditching the traditional ornate red papal mozetta in favour of a simpler white cassock, Pope Francis sent a signal to the world that he will bring the Church back to basics.

In a similar move, Pope Francis shunned the papal limousine that had been prepared for him after the blessing from St Peter’s Basilica, and rode back to the Santa Marta residence in a bus with his – to use his own words – “brother cardinals”.

Returning from an early morning visit to the Roman Basilica of St Mary Major after his election, Francis made an unplanned stop at the Casa del Clero, a residence for priests where he spent the weeks ahead of the conclave. After gathering his belongings, he personally thanked the staff and, to the gasps of papal aides, asked to pay his bill. It was a move “to give a good example,” a Vatican spokesman said.

However trivial these gestures may have been, one stands out as particularly profound. In his first action as the new Roman Pontiff, before imparting his first Papal blessing on the faithful, he bowed before the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square, and asked them to pray for him.


Francis on faith

Pope Francis’ first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith), which he said is largely the work of retired Pope Benedict XVI, was published in July.

Pope Francis points out early in the encyclical that there is an “urgent need” to address the current crisis of faith, “to see once again that faith is a light, for once the flame of faith dies out, all other lights begin to dim”.

"The light of faith is unique, since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence," he said.

An encyclical on faith was long expected as the last volume in Pope Benedict's trilogy on the three theological virtues, following his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est (2005) on charity, and Spe Salvi (2007) on hope.

Addressed to "the bishops, priests and deacons, consecrated persons and the lay faithful", Lumen Fidei deals extensively with the origins of faith, as well as its transmission and its relevance in the world.


A pastoral Pope

Six months into his papacy, Francis set out his vision for the Church and his priorities as Pope in a lengthy and remarkably frank interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal. It was published simultaneously in September by Jesuit journals in 16 countries, including America magazine.

The Irish Catholic published the interview, which was conducted by Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, in full, in the September 26, 2013 issue.

One particularly interesting passage is when the Holy Father explains his perceived reticence to discuss issues such as abortion, contraception and the redefinition of marriage.

Pope Francis says:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear, and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He continues:

“The Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: This is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise, even the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.”

The Holy Father covers many other issues in the interview, including his past as a young Jesuit provincial in Argentina, his approach to Curial reform and his views on the Second Vatican Council.



The Pope’s reform agenda

With his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which the Vatican published in November, Pope Francis finally made his real debut as papal author.

The Pope had already published an encyclical, however, in the opening paragraphs of Lumen Fidei, he explained that the text was essentially the work of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to whose words Pope Francis had merely “added a few contributions” of his own.

Apostolic exhortations are often based on deliberations of synods of bishops, and this one takes into account the October 2012 synod on the New Evangelisation.

However, despite voicing strong commitment to the principle of consultation with fellow bishops and even suggesting that the synod should become a permanent advisory body, the Pope has seemingly tackled this exhortation by himself.

Littered with colloquial phrases, metaphors and musings, Evangelii Gaudium has a distinctly Francis feel. Brimming with enthusiasm for evangelisation, the Pope exudes passion for the transmission of the Faith in this unique exhortation.

From the beginning the Pope makes it clear that reform is on the agenda. He outlines some guidelines which “can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelisation, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality”.  In this context, the Pope discussed at length the following questions:

 the reform of the Church in her missionary outreach;

 the temptations faced by pastoral workers;

 the Church, understood as the entire People of God which evangelises;

 the homily and its preparation;

 the inclusion of the poor in society;

 peace and dialogue within society;

 the spiritual motivations for mission.


World Youth Day

The Church must adopt a more simple approach and be capable of “walking at people’s side”, was one of the strong messages to come from Pope Francis during a visit to Brazil for World Youth Day (WYD) from July 23-28.

It was fitting that the first Latin American Pope should make his first international trip to his native continent, and he inspired the millions of young people present to share the Gospel with their peers.

The Pope spent the week visiting dignitaries, holy shrines, young prisoners, offering confessions and perhaps most poignantly visiting one of this city’s notorious ‘favelas’, where he denounced corruption and a “culture of selfishness and individualism,” and called for a “culture of solidarity” in pursuit of social justice.

After walking the streets for half an hour, the Pope thanked more than 20,000 residents gathered in a local soccer field for their hospitality, and said Brazilians could “offer the world a valuable lesson in solidarity, a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable”.

Over two million people attended the prayer vigil on Copacabana beach on July 27, including 160 Irish pilgrims. After a wet and cold night sleeping on the beach, three million young people participated in the Closing Mass the next day where Pope Francis announced that the next WYD in 2016 will be in Krakow, Poland.

On the flight home to Rome, Pope Francis gave a surprise in-flight press conference, spending over an hour answering questions with a spontaneity and openness that he has become known for.


Local visits, universal messages

Aside from his official visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis’ most significant visits of 2013 beyond the city of Rome were all to Italian territories.

On July 8, the Pope drew international attention to the tiny island of Lampedusa, when he travelled to visit the many migrants for whom the Italian-controlled island, a little over 100 kms from the coast of Tunisia, is their goal in seeking entry to Europe from a host of African nations.

Speaking during an outdoor Mass, Pope Francis chided the indifference of the wider world to the plight of migrants, many of whom died in their desperate attempts to reach Lampedusa.

Addressing a gathering of some 20,000 people in the city of Cagliari during his 10-hour visit, Pope Francis decried the economic crisis as a “consequence of a global choice, of an economic system that led to this tragedy, an economic system centred on an idol, which is called money”. “We want a just system, a system that lets all of us get ahead,” he said.

The question of acceptable systems was one the Pope would pose for the Church itself as he undertook his October 4 visit to the shrine of his namesake at Assisi.

In a room linked to the moment St Francis stripped himself of his possessions and dedicated himself to the service of the poor, the Pontiff, laying aside his prepared address said, “this is a good occasion to invite the Church to strip itself of worldliness”.


‘Person of the Year’

On a more quirky note, Pope Francis was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013.

In an article explaining the decision, Time said: “What makes this Pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the Church at all.”

Quirkier again, despite the joy that greeted the inclusion of Pope Francis on the cover of US rock magazine Rolling Stone, the Vatican voiced its displeasure at the content of the accompanying story.

Speaking about the issue of the publication which featured a smiling Pope Francis, Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi pointed out that the article, penned by journalist Mark Binelli, on his pontificate relies on unnecessary comparisons with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.


Stepping up reform

On a more serious note, Pope Francis made his international advisory panel on Church governance a permanent council of cardinals last year, thereby emphasising the importance and open-endedness of its work among his pontificate's various efforts at reform.

The Vatican made the announcement in Sept, a day before Pope Francis was scheduled to meet for the first time with the panel, which has been informally dubbed the ‘Group of Eight’.

As he has said several times since the advisory panel was announced last April, Pope Francis noted in his decree that the council was a response to suggestions by his fellow cardinals at the pre-conclave meetings.

The council's field of potential concern extends far beyond Vatican reform, and Pope Francis has said that its deliberations will include the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The eight council members, who include Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley and Sydney Cardinal George Pell, represent six continents, with the largest number – three members – coming from the Americas.

To date, the group have met with the Pope formally on three occasions, with additional meetings are scheduled for 28 to 30 April and 1 to 4 July.


Creating new cardinals

Pope Francis also created 19 new cardinals in the presence of retired Pope Benedict XVI on a feast day commemorating the authority Jesus gave to St Peter and his successors.

Before beginning the service, Pope Francis walked over to Pope Benedict, who removed his zucchetto to greet Pope Francis.

In his homily Pope Francis did not mention the standard point that the cardinals’ new red vestments are symbols of the call to serve Christ and his Church to the point of shedding their blood if necessary. Rather, he focused on their being called to follow Christ more closely, to build up the unity of the Church and to proclaim the Gospel more courageously.

Pope Francis told the new cardinals, who come from 15 different countries – including very poor nations like Haiti and Ivory Coast – that the Church “needs you, your cooperation and, even more, your communion, communion with me and among yourselves”.

“The Church needs your courage,” he said, “to proclaim the Gospel at all times” and “to bear witness to the truth.”

The consistory brought to 218 the total number of cardinals in the world; 122 cardinals are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave.

While taking time to reflect on Francis’ first year as Pontiff is a worthy task, the recent creation of 19 new cardinals bringing to 122 the number of cardinals eligible to vote to Francis’ inevitable successor reminds us that the Church is always future-conscious.

Pope Francis has jammed a lot into his first year at the Church’s helm, but he is sure to be constantly aware of his end game; reform. A great deal has been done with regard to reform, but there remains a lot more to do. One thing is for sure; Francis is the perfect Pope to do it.