Pope Francis at 10 years old: the reformer’s learning curve, plans

VATICAN CITY — That’s it for a short pontificate.

Pope Francis celebrates the 10th anniversary of his election on Monday, well ahead of the “two or three” years he once envisioned for his papacy, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Instead, with an agenda full of challenges and plans and no longer burdened by the shadow of Pope Benedict XVI, the 86-year-old Francis has abandoned talk of retirement and recently called the papacy the job of a lifetime.

The first ever Latin American Pope has already left his mark and may have an even greater impact in the years to come. As recently as a decade ago, the Argentine Jesuit was so convinced he would not be elected pope that he nearly missed the final vote while talking to a fellow cardinal outside the Sistine Chapel.

“The master of ceremonies came out and said, ‘Are you going or not?'” Francis recalled in a recent interview with the Associated Press. “Later I realized it was my unconscious resistance to entry.”

In the next vote, he was elected the 266th pope.


Francis had extensive experience of sexual abuse by clergy, initially downplaying the issue in a way that left survivors questioning whether he “got it.” Five years into his pontificate, after a difficult visit to Chile, he heard a wake-up call.

During the trip, he discovered a serious discrepancy between what the Chilean bishops told him about the sensational case and the reality: hundreds or thousands of Chilean believers have been abused and molested by Catholic priests for decades.

“That was my conversion,” he told the AP. “Then the bomb exploded when I saw the corruption of many bishops in this.”

Since then, Francis has taken a series of measures aimed at holding the church hierarchy accountable, but the results have been mixed. Benedict removed about 800 priests, but Francis appears to be far less eager to excommunicate abusers, suggesting resistance within the hierarchy to efforts to permanently remove predators from the priesthood.

The next frontier of the crisis has already raised its head: sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse of adults by the clergy. Francis is aware of the problem — the new case involves one of his Jesuit brothers — but appears unwilling to take decisive action


When a history of Francis’ pontificate is written, entire chapters may well be devoted to his emphasis on “synodality,” a term that has little meaning outside Catholic circles but may rank among Francis’ most important ecclesiastical contributions.

A synod is a meeting of bishops, and Francis’ philosophy that bishops should listen to each other and to the laity has defined his vision of the Catholic Church: He wants it to be a place where the faithful are welcomed, accompanied and heard.

The synods held during the first 10 years of his papacy led to some of the most significant and controversial moments of his papacy.

After listening, for example, to the situation of divorced Catholics during the Synod on the Family in 2014-2015, Francis opened the possibility of receiving Communion for divorced and remarried couples. Calls to allow married priests marked his 2019 synod in the Amazon, although Francis ultimately rejected the idea.

His October synod included an unprecedented campaign by Catholics about their hopes for the church and the challenges they faced, prompting demands for women to play a greater leadership role, including ordination.


Catholic traditionalists were alarmed when Francis made his first appearance as pope in the loggia of St. Peter’s without the red cape his predecessors wore to official events. However, they never expected him to reverse one of Benedict’s signature rulings, reimposing restrictions on the old Latin Mass, including where and who could celebrate it.

While the decision directly affected only a fraction of Catholic Mass attendees, his crackdown on the Tridentine rite became a call to arms for the conservative opposition opposed to Francis.

Francis justified his move by the fact that Benedict’s decision to liberalize the celebration of the old Mass became a source of division in the parishes. But traditionalists have seen the renewed restrictions as an attack on Orthodoxy, which they say runs counter to Francis’ “all welcome” mantra.

“Instead of integrating them into parish life, restricting the use of parish churches will marginalize and marginalize faithful Catholics who only want services,” lamented Joseph Shaw of the British branch of the Latin Mass Society.

While the short-term prospects for easing Francis are not good, traditionalists have time on their side, knowing that the 2,000-year-old institution could see another pope more friendly to the old rite.


Francis’ “female genius” jokes have long made women cringe. Women theologians are “strawberries on the cake,” he once said. Nuns should not be “old maids,” he said. Europe should not be a barren, barren “grandmother,” he told European Union lawmakers — a remark that drew an angry call from then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But it’s also true that Francis has done more to advance women in the church than any pope before him, including appointing several women to senior positions in the Vatican.

That’s saying little, given that only one in four employees of the Holy See is a woman, no woman heads a dicastery or department, and Francis upholds church doctrine that bars women from the priesthood.

But the trend is there and “there is no going back,” said Maria Lia Cervino, one of the first three women named by the Vatican office that helps the pope choose bishops around the world.


Francis’ insistence that long-marginalized LGBTQ Catholics can find a welcoming home in the church can be summed up in two statements that have ended his papacy to date: “Who am I to judge?” and “Being homosexual is not a crime.”

Between these historic announcements, Francis has made LGBTQ work a hallmark of his papacy more than any pope before him.

He serves as a member of the transgender community in Rome. He counseled homosexual couples who wanted to raise their children in Catholicism. During a visit to the US in 2015, he publicized a private meeting with a gay former student and the man’s partner to counter a conservative narrative that he hosted an anti-gay marriage activist.

“The Pope is reminding the Church that the way people treat each other in the public world is of far greater moral importance than what people may do in the privacy of the bedroom,” said Francis DeBernardo of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for greater acceptance LGBTQ Catholics.

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