The Francis pontificate, 10 years on

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Pope Francis bows his head in prayer during his election night appearance on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican March 13, 2013. The crowd joined the pope in silent prayer after he asked them to pray that God would bless him. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis is preparing to mark 10 years since his election as bishop of Rome. Jorge Mario Bergoglio arrived for the 2013 conclave with a return ticket to Argentina and a small briefcase. He didn’t expect to be elected pope. But the cardinal from Argentina emerged from the balcony on that rainy evening as the first Roman pontiff from Latin America and the first pope to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi.

For the past 10 years, Francis has sought to implement a Gospel-based reform of the church by harnessing the spirit of St. Francis with his love of poverty, the natural world and his work for peace. This pope is not a liberal or a conservative — he’s a radical.

The anniversary also raises the question of the impact of this papacy and where Francis is leading the church. While the past 10 years have been a whirlwind of activity, foreign travel and initiatives, three themes can be identified.

The first is a desire for a church that is mission focused at every level of its institutional life, something seen in Francis’ constitution for the Roman Curia, “Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”). This reform places evangelization at the heart of the church’s central government, which serves the pope and the local churches.

In other words, the church does not exist to maintain its bureaucracies or preserve its financial position. Francis insists the church’s nature is missionary and always seeking new ways to proclaim the Gospel. In the new hierarchy of offices in the Roman Curia, the department dedicated to evangelization now takes precedence over the Vatican’s doctrinal office.

Evangelization is also a collaborative effort that is not the sole preserve of the pope, bishops and priests. Every believer, through their baptism, has a part to play. For this reason, the new constitution rules that any suitably qualified lay Catholic, male or female, can lead a department in the Roman Curia. The curial reform is not simply about what happens in Rome, but should also have implications for dioceses worldwide. Francis is setting the tone and example for others to follow.  

The second feature of the Francis papacy is the return to the fundamentals of faith and the recapturing of the spirit of early Christianity. Along with the updating that the pope has carried out with his reforms, his pontificate has been inspired by the concept of “ressourcement,” the idea of returning to the sources of Christianity. This was also one of the drivers of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms.

“Evangelii Gaudium,” the manifesto document for this pontificate, calls on the church to refocus on the proclamation of the Gospel and be wary of over-complication or the fear of falling into doctrinal error. Francis has tried to keep it simple and wants the church to concentrate on its core message: the joy of faith, the mercy of God and service to the marginalized.

Francis knows that in an increasingly secularized world, faith, rather than exterior positions or titles in the church, makes the difference, and his appeal is to those outside of the sacristies or the halls of power in Rome. 

“We are the baptized; we are Christians; we are the disciples of Jesus. Everything else is secondary,” Francis told a Feb. 18 conference on the laity. “‘But, Father, also being a priest?’ — ‘Yes, that too is secondary’ — ‘And what about a bishop?’ — ‘Yes, that is secondary’ — ‘Even a cardinal?’ — ‘That too is secondary,’” he said.

Returning to the fundamentals brings us to the third feature of Francis’ pontificate: synodal reform. This process points the church back to the councils and synods deeply rooted in Catholic tradition and present in early Christianity and today offer a space to discern the action of the Holy Spirit. It has been a feature of the Francis pontificate from the beginning, while the ongoing global synod process will likely be this pope’s lasting legacy.

In his first words addressing the crowd in St. Peter’s Square after his election, the new pope talked of journeying together, which is central to synodality: “We take up this journey: bishop and people,” Francis said on March 13, 2013. “This journey of the church of Rome which presides in charity over all the churches. A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.”

Over the past decade, the journey of the Francis pontificate has initiated a profound renewal in the church and an overhaul of its internal culture. At times, it has been a bumpy ride, and there’s likely to be plenty of turbulence ahead. While Francis never expected to be pope, the longer he’s gone on, the more he feels he needs to do. This papacy remains a work in progress.


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