ROME – On practically every issue of modern importance – from personal conversion to nationalist populism, to the fragility of democracy, the abuse crisis and the marginalized – Pope Francis has had something to say during his ten years in office.
Yet of them all, there are a handful of issues that stand out as clearer, overarching priorities for this pontiff which, if you look at in broad strokes, form the backbone of much of his rhetoric and policies over the past decade.
Here’s a rundown of what are arguably the top five themes of the Francis papacy:
A poor church for the poor
By now, Pope Francis’s story of how he chose his pontifical name is well-known. He was speaking to journalists just days after his election to the papacy March 13, 2013, when he said that it was his friend, the late Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who inspired it.
As the pope told it, once it had become clear that he’d been elected, Hummes, who was sitting beside him, whispered, “don’t forget the poor,” inspiring the newly elected pontiff to choose the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, dubbed the “poor man of Assisi.”
“Oh, how I would like a poor church for the poor,” Pope Francis said on that occasion. Since then, this has become not only one of his most famous taglines over the past 10 years, but it has also come to form the backbone of his own pontifical style and vision for the church.
From his simple white attire to the humble Fiat he buzzes around in, from his decision to pay his own hotel bill after his election and his choice of whose feet to wash every Holy Thursday, prioritizing women, migrants, the mentally disabled, and prisoners, a spirit of poverty has underlined it all.
As a man who while archbishop of Buenos Aires regularly took the subway and walked the streets of the villas miserias, he has consistently prioritized those on the margins, most prominently through his advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees, and in his foreign trips.
Francis from the beginning made a pledge to visit countries that no other pope had visited, or which seemed small and unworthy of a papal visit, with a tiny Catholic flock, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina; Albania; Macedonia and Bulgaria; Georgia and Azerbaijan; and Myanmar and Bangladesh.
During his international trips, he has always made a point of meeting with the most vulnerable members of society, including prisoners; migrants and refugees; abuse victims; street children in the Philippines; persecuted Christians and other minorities in Iraq; or victims of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
In between trips, he has made a point of welcoming the poor into the Vatican for museum visits or beach days, and has often advocated for the physically and developmentally disabled, asking that they be allowed to receive the sacraments. During the 2015-2016 Jubilee of Mercy, he visited the marginalized, sick, and poor every Friday.
His ‘preferential option for the poor,’ as it can be called, is further illustrated in his decision in 2018 to give his almoner, Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a red hat. Those perceived as occupying the lowest rung on the ladder, those who cannot advocate for themselves, are and always have been among his top priorities, and they likely will continue to be well into the future.
Climate and the environment
In tandem with care and attention to the poor and marginalized has been Pope Francis’s advocacy for the environment, the mistreatment of which he has linked as a contributing factor to an array of problems, including migration, advocating for so-called “climate migrants,” as well as the coronavirus pandemic.
This has been a prominent concern for Francis since the beginning, most prominently with the publication of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si, in which the pope makes a sweeping condemnation of consumerism and what he says are irresponsible development models, and warns against the dangers of climate change and global warming, and calls the world to immediate action.
He has repeatedly voiced support for high-profile global climate summits such as the COP gatherings and was even expected to attend the COP26 United Nations climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, but was unable to go. He’d had invasive colon surgery several months prior.
Francis’s 2019 Synod of Bishops on the Amazon was largely focused on environmental issues and the need to protect the Amazon rainforest’s biodiversity and save it from slash-and-burn farming and erosive mining techniques that encroach on indigenous land, forcing many to flee their homes as companies plow further into the mineral-rich forest.
The pope has also met with young climate activist Greta Thunberg and praised her youth-driven “climate strikes,” and during the COVID-19 pandemic, he pinned the blame largely on irresponsible environmental habits and advocated for equitable distribution of vaccines.
He has also consistently called for an end to the exploitation of the African continent – most recently during his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan – accusing extractive industries and wealthy corporations of “raping” the land beyond repair and harvesting all the wealth for themselves, leaving rich richer and the poor, poorer.
This type of advocacy from Pope Francis has been among the most prominent of his papacy, and in all likelihood, will continue to be going forward.
Another key concept for Pope Francis’s ten years in office is that of “synodality,” a buzzword in his papacy which, while still difficult for many to define, encompasses his vision for the global church and has become one of the most prominent contemporary aspects of this papacy.
Francis has always used the word “synodality” to express a certain type of collegial and frank exchange in which decisions are made together.
Over time, “synodality” has generally come to be understood as a collaborative and consultative style of management in which all members, clerical and lay, participate in making decisions about the church’s life and mission.
The word started to gain steam during the pope’s 2018 Synod of Bishops on youth and has grown in prominence to such an extent that it is the main topic of reflection for a 4-year, multi-stage consultation process in the global church unfolding as part of Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
Characterized by different stages beginning with local, diocesan consultations with laypeople in parishes, and moving to a continental stage in which the summaries of those consultations are being discussed at a broader level, the process opened in 2021 and will culminate with two Rome gatherings of bishops, one taking place in October of this year, and the next, final gathering set for October 2024.
The main stated goal of the Synod on Synodality has been to make the church a more open, welcoming, and inclusive place, where everyone has a voice that is heard and where no one feels left out, and where decisions are not issued from on high by decree, but rather are made in consultation with the people.
In effect, synodality encompasses several of the pope’s main priorities, from eradicating clericalism to empowering laypeople and youth, and ensuring that women have a greater role in the church, especially when it comes to leadership and decision-making.
Synodality for Pope Francis is the hinge on which the church should operate, and is the natural trajectory for implementing the vision of the Second Vatican Council, ensuring that the church is open, inclusive, and primarily, takes its cues from the people.
One clear and consistent refrain throughout Pope Francis’s ten years in office has been his open criticism of free market capitalism, and his advocacy for a more just global system that centers less on profit and more on an equitable distribution of resources in service of the common good, and which benefits the poor.
Francis believes many of the social reforms he’s calling for begin at the economic level, and has called for vast changes to the global system in nearly all major speeches and documents throughout this papacy, from urging more sustainable development models in Laudato Si, to his calls for a revamped European economy based on integration and human dignity while receiving the prestigious Charlemagne Prize in 2016.
In that speech, the pope coined his famous phrase, “grandmother Europe,” saying the continent had forgotten its founding ideals and had grown tired and was in desperate need of new vitality, calling leaders to move “from a liquid economy to a social economy,” directed less at revenue and more at investing in people, and which fights corruption.
His 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti on social friendship carries much of the same tone, containing lengthy criticisms of populism, liberalism, and free-market capitalism, and avid support for multilateral efforts and policies that prioritize the most vulnerable, including migrants and refugees.
Pope Francis has also sought to enlist young people for the cause through his “Economy of Francis” event, held in Assisi last year which drew young economists and change makers from around the world to discuss the transition to a more peaceful and equitable economy prioritizing the poor and the environment.
Originally set for 2020 but rescheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic, with most discussions and working sessions leading up to it, being held online. However, the roughly 1,000 youth who attended the in-person meeting signed a pact with Pope Francis in which they outlined their vision for an economy “of peace and not war,” and which is guided by a clear set of ethics prioritizing human dignity and the poor.
Although synodality has taken a more front-seat role in Francis’s papacy over the past year or so, his push for the conversion of the global economic system still remains a top priority.
Perhaps the most important theme of Francis’s entire 10-year reign thus far, is his push for pastoral conversion.
From his lengthy annual speeches to the Roman Curia, to major papal documents, and audiences and speeches with the general public, he has consistently called believers to personal conversion, and has urged the church and its pastors to do the same.
Since the beginning of his papacy, the pope has pushed for this conversion by criticizing the church for remaining “closed in” on itself and voicing his desire for “a church that goes out,” and is in touch with the people and their needs, rather than obsessing over trivial internal debates.
His whole pastoral strategy has been aimed at helping the church become the “field hospital for the sick” he so frequently advocates for, rather than an exclusive club for perceived elites who follow all the rules and embrace every doctrine.
This desire for pastoral conversion can be seen in his lengthy, frank annual speeches to members of the Roman Curia, which in the past decade he’s used as opportunities to conduct a collective examination of conscious, diagnosing several spiritual “illnesses” he says the church suffers from and offering his own remedies, always stressing the need for conversion.
Francis wants the church’s central governing body and its most exclusive club, the College of Cardinals, to be more international and diverse, and more focused on evangelization.
This desire is evidenced not only by his red hat recipients over the years, but also his writings in major documents such as his first apostolic exhortation in 2013, Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” in which he calls believers to be “missionary disciples” in love with the Gospel, and his document last year reforming the Roman Curia, Praedicate evangelium, or “Preach the Gospel,” in which he introduced sweeping changes to the curia, creating a special department dedicated to evangelization and allowing laypeople to hold more prominent roles in leadership.
He has consistently called the church to become more merciful and to spend less time tied up in theological debates and more time reaching out to the wounded and suffering.
This was the upshot of his Jubilee of Mercy, during which he allowed all priests to absolve the sin of abortion and broadened access to indulgences, and it was the motivating factor behind his decision in the infamous footnote 351 of his 2016 document Amoris Laetitia, published after the 2014 and 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family, in which he authorized a cautious opening for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
It was also the motivation behind his streamlining of the marriage annulment process, and is also a big factor in the current Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
Pope Francis ultimately sees it as his task to overhaul the church, further opening it to the world and making mercy and evangelization the driving force behind all of its actions, essentially implementing the vision of the Second Vatican Council and eradicating anything he believes gets in the way of that.
Pastoral conversion is the key to all of it, it is essential to implementing his vision, and this will likely remain one of his top priorities for the rest of his pontificate.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen