Pope Francis’ plate still full three years in to papacy

By Christopher Lamb
Saturday, March 19, 2016

VATICAN CITY — It is little more than three years since Jorge Mario Bergoglio walked on to the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square on a cold and wet evening in March to greet the world as Pope Francis.

Despite the weather, his appearance and greeting of “Buonasera” (“Good evening”) electrified the crowd waiting below. Since then the world has witnessed something of a shock-and-awe papacy. In many ways it feels like Francis has been pope for much longer than three years.

Francis’ major achievements have been related to how the church is perceived. He has moved the Catholic conversation away from the “do’s and don’t’s” to putting the Gospel into action. On Holy Thursday Francis will wash the feet of 12 migrants, a powerful gesture that comes at a time when the world is facing a refugee crisis and many countries are closing their borders to newcomers. With gestures like that, Francis has bolstered the papacy’s global presence. When Pope Francis talks, world leaders listen.

Nevertheless, the pope still has major tasks ahead. One of these centers on the Synod of Bishops, which has met twice during his papacy to discuss the family. On March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph and the anniversary of the inauguration of his papacy, Francis will sign his document responding to those gatherings.

The text, which runs to more than 100 pages, is not expected until after Easter. Francis called those synods to encourage the church to find new ways of ministering to families in all their contemporary forms. It is expected that the text will reflect key themes discussed at the synod, namely the need to accompany people and to find ways to integrate those who feel alienated from the church. He will likely address the question of whether Communion can be given to some who have divorced and remarried without an annulment, a topic that was the subject of heated debate inside and outside of the synod hall.

The document issued at the end of last October’s gathering, which received approval from two-thirds of the synod fathers, left the pope room to maneuver. It neither approved nor disapproved of Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics, but it did open the door to individuals being helped by a priest to discern whether they might be re-admitted to the sacraments.

Francis is not expected to close off that opening, and may decide to devolve the matter to local bishops and priests. This would be in keeping with his desire to decentralize power from Rome and to govern collegially, in concert with the world’s episcopacy.

The pope wants the Synod of Bishops to feature more prominently in the church. He hopes for a church that is continually listening, discerning and walking together. Synods must be more than big meetings that happen once every couple of years. This means that local bishops conferences will have to take up the challenge.

Speaking of which, it has been widely reported that Pope Francis will be appoint Archbishop Christophe Pierre to be the next papal ambassador to the United States, possibly before Easter. (Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, who has served in that role since 2011, reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 in January.) Archbishop Pierre is a seasoned, highly regarded diplomat from France who is currently the Holy See’s envoy to Mexico. As nuncio to the United States, one of his major tasks will be recommending new bishops.

Another area where people are expecting change is in the Roman Curia. The pope and his council of cardinal advisers have been working on reforming the church’s central administration. Francis has introduced a raft of financial reforms, such as the creation of a new council of the economy and a secretariat. For the first time, an outside firm, PricewaterhouseCooopers, will be auditing the Holy See’s finances. It is expected that the accounts for the latest financial year will show the Vatican in deficit.

Along with finances, the other major curial change so far is a restructuring of Vatican communications, designed to better coordinate its multifarious media operation.

The process of reforming the Curia is unfolding gradually. For some this causes frustration. Yet it is not Francis’ style to make sudden, dramatic changes. He prefers to work methodically. At the heart of his vision is the desire for the church to become more effective pastorally — to be closer to people in order to know their needs.

The slow pace of change might also reflect the pope’s skepticism of systems and structures, along with his preference to operate at the level of personal encounters.

The pope’s overhaul of Vatican finances has faced internal resistance, and has been the subject of leaks. Five people are currently on trial at the Holy See, including a priest and two journalists, who are accused of leaking confidential documents of the Holy See (the priest, Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda, admitted in court to passing documents and passwords to reporters).

The leaked material related to a 2013 papal commission to reform the Vatican’s financial administration. It led to two books, including one by Gianluigi Nuzzi, who reported on the first “Vatileaks” scandal in 2012, when Benedict XVI’s butler disclosed documents from the papal apartments.

Among the revelations in Nuzzi’s book is an estimation that having someone beatified costs $550,000, while Vatican officials in charge of sainthood causes lack accounting procedures to show how the money would be spent. Days before the latest Vatileaks trial was about to resume last week, Pope Francis approved new rules for the funding of sainthood causes that will increase transparency, ensure detailed accounting and create “disciplinary procedures.” (See related story on Page 14.)

Whatever challenges this trial poses, Francis appears steady. He continues to emphasize a servant-leadership model of the papacy, which he hopes will remain after he has gone. He will be able to focus on his work in Rome over the next few months, given that his next foreign trip is not until July (he will go to Poland for World Youth Day). Francis is well aware of the perils a leader faces when he spends time abroad. As he once joked with group of French bishops, when “the cat’s away, the mice will play.”


  • pope francis
  • curial reform

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