ROME — Pope Francis is the dictionary definition of an activist pontiff, constantly saying and doing things that stir hearts, raise eyebrows, and generally capture public interest.
He’s so dynamic, in fact, that often there’s no time to absorb one bombshell before another goes off. Here’s a rundown of the 10 biggest papal headlines of 2015, all of which seemed hard to top at the time, and all of which now risk being overwhelmed by whatever happens in 2016.
10. Latin America
A July 5-13 outing to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay amounted to a triumphant homecoming for history’s first Latin American pope. One high point came with a fiery July 10 speech to popular movements in Bolivia, in which Francis denounced a “new colonialism” and called for the poor to have the “sacred rights” of labor, housing, and land.
Although Francis wasn’t on hand for the May 23 beatification of El Salvador’s slain Archbishop Oscar Romero, it wouldn’t have happened without him. It not only marked a sort of reconciliation with liberation theology, but also gave contemporary Christian martyrs a new patron.
8. Vatileaks 2.0
In November, two books on Vatican financial scandals appeared based on leaked documents from a papal commission. The Vatican indicted three former insiders for those leaks, as well as the two journalists who published the books, under its criminal law. With no end in sight, the Vatileaks trial has raised questions about freedom of expression, the future of confidentiality in the Vatican, and the direction of the pope’s financial reform.
7. Mixed verdict on sex abuse
Francis appeared to take an important step toward accountability in April when he accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the lone American prelate convicted of failure to report. Yet he also appointed a bishop in Chile seen as having protected that country’s most notorious abuser priest, and later lashed out at critics of the choice as “leftists” propagating “foolishness.” To date, most reformers give the pontiff a mixed verdict.
6. Sri Lanka and the Philippines
Even before he arrived in January, some Sri Lankans credited Francis with emboldening them to elect a new moderate reformer president. In the Philippines, Francis shattered the all-time record for turnout at a papal Mass, drawing more than 6 million people. The image of the pontiff standing on the typhoon-ravaged island of Tacloban on Jan. 17 as another tropical storm bore down, wearing a simple yellow rain poncho, became an instant icon.
5. Central African Republic
While Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving, Francis visited Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. The visit to the CAR marked the first time a modern pope had set foot in an active war zone. It remains to be seen if it will bring lasting peace, but the pontiff’s determination left a deep local impression. He semi-jokingly told his pilot that if it wasn’t safe to land, he should just give the pope a parachute — because one way or another, he was going.
4. Laudato Si’/Climate Change
For the first time, a pope devoted an entire encyclical to the environment, insisting that limiting the impact of climate change is a moral and spiritual issue. Francis repeatedly called for strong action at the United Nations Cop21 summit, warning that failure would be “catastrophic” during a November visit to the UN Environment Program in Kenya, and some observers gave him partial credit for the outcome in Paris. Catholic opinion remains mixed, but there’s no mistaking where this pontiff stands.
3. Cuba and the United States
In 2014, Francis helped Cuba and the United States mend fences; this year, he took a victory lap by combining trips to both nations. His outing to the States came off as a success, generating a bevy of memorable moments – the “Mass on the Grass” outside Washington’s Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a frenzied swing through New York’s Central Park, and a speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall from the same lectern Abraham Lincoln used for the Gettysburg Address. Polls gave Francis glowing reviews, saying the trip improved Americans’ view of the Church.
2. Year of Mercy
Francis decreed that Dec. 8, 2015, through Nov. 20, 2016, will be observed as a special jubilee Year of Mercy, with Roman officials expecting at least 10 million pilgrims to wash through the city. More than anything else, the announcement put an exclamation point on the insight that mercy is the spiritual Rosetta stone of this papacy, the filter through which Francis understands himself and his agenda.
1. The Synod of Bishops
For sheer drama, nothing topped the Oct. 4-25 Synod of Bishops on the family, which featured cardinals jousting in public, suspicions of rigging and deck-stacking, and activist groups of all sorts descending on Rome. Substantively, the synod provided an X-ray of a divided Church on questions such as divorce, homosexuality, and people living together outside marriage, and the jury is still out on how Francis will resolve those dilemmas. Procedurally, the synod seemed to embody a new way of handling disagreements, allowing them to play out in the belief that the Church has nothing to fear from healthy debate. When historians talk about the legacy of Pope Francis, his two synods on the family may be where the story begins.
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Another 10 stories worthy of honorable mention
Those Top 10 stories were hardly the only things Francis said or did in 2015 that captured attention. There were plenty of other candidates, but which for one reason or another didn’t make the cut.
First of all, I didn’t include stories that fell into the category of “cute,” but didn’t have much real news value. For instance, on March 21 Francis went to Naples, with one highlight coming when a local pizza maker named Enzo Cacialli handed the pontiff a pie as his motorcade swung through the city. (For the record, it was a yellow Naples-style pizza with “Il Papa” spelled out in dough and topped with yellow cherry tomatoes in honor of the colors of the papal flag.)
Francis had lamented in an interview that he can’t slip out and get a pizza like he used to. Images of a beaming Francis receiving the pie went viral, but they don’t really illuminate very much in terms of his agenda or priorities.
Here, then, are 10 next-tier candidates for major papal headlines from the past year.
10. Spanking is okay
During an early February general audience devoted to the family, Francis told a story about a father: “One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say, ‘I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them.’ How beautiful! He knows the sense of dignity! He has to punish them, but does it justly and moves on.” The remark was taken as an endorsement of corporal punishment, sparking a lively debate and some criticism of the pontiff from children’s rights groups.
9. Mother Teresa
In December, Francis approved a second miracle attributed to the intercession of Mother Teresa, clearing the way for her to be declared a saint. The ceremony is expected on Sept. 4, 2016. That would be a big deal in any event, given Mother Teresa’s status as arguably the most iconic Catholic figure of the 20th century, and given that Vatican officials expect at least 350,000 people to attend the canonization Mass. In the context of the Year of Mercy, however, the decision means that Mother Teresa becomes the leading example of the kind of mercy Francis wants to extol: not just a spiritual disposition, but a life of service.
8. Charlie Hebdo
In the wake of an attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for publishing derisive images of Muhammad, Francis was asked in mid-January aboard the papal plane from Sri Lanka to the Philippines for a reaction. The pontiff replied that free speech has limits, and said that anyone who insults his mother can expect a “punch in the nose.” The remark was taken as suggesting that to some extent, those who deliberately insult religious sensitivities are playing with fire.
7. Breeding ‘like rabbits’
Just a few days later, during another airborne press conference on the way back to Rome, Francis said Catholics should practice “responsible parenthood” and don’t need to be “like rabbits.” Though some breathless insta-commentary took the remark as an opening to artificial birth control, Francis was actually referring to the traditional Catholic practice of Natural Family Planning.
6. New cardinals
On Feb. 14, Francis held his second consistory for the creation of new cardinals, cementing his reputation as the “Pope of the Peripheries.” The pontiff bypassed traditional centers of power and awarded red hats to such typically overlooked locales as Panama, Thailand, Cape Verde, New Zealand, and the Pacific island of Tonga. Even within countries long accustomed to having cardinals, he skipped the usual powerhouse dioceses in favor of more obscure places: Ancona and Agrigento in Italy, for instance, rather than Venice and Turin.
5. A short papacy
In an interview with the Mexican broadcaster Televisa in March, Francis predicted a short tenure for himself. “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years; I do not know, even two or three,” he said. “Two have already passed. It is a somewhat vague sensation … I feel that the Lord has placed me here for a short time, and nothing more … I always leave the possibility open.” This was not, as some styled it, either a disclosure of a hidden illness or a preview of a resignation, but the sense of time being short did seem to help explain some of the urgency Francis has displayed.
4. Francis in Sarajevo
On June 6, Francis made a day trip to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, a country divided among Muslims, Orthodox, and Catholics. Sarajevo was famously the object of a four-year siege during the 1990s, during a bloody Balkan conflict that first gave the world the term “ethnic cleansing.” Francis came to promote reconciliation, part of a pattern of using his international trips to visit places just emerging from conflicts to try to promote movement down the path of peace. The Sarajevo outing, in other words, helped confirm Francis’ profile as a “Peace Pope.”
3. The Armenian genocide
During a Mass in April marking the 100th anniversary of the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during the World War I era, Francis used the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter, igniting a diplomatic controversy. The Turks summoned the Vatican ambassador in Ankara, and recalled their own ambassador to the Vatican in protest. To some extent, the incident set the stage for the pontiff’s willingness later in the year to refer to ISIS campaigns against Christians in Syria and Iraq as “genocide,” something critics of the US pointed out the State Department was unwilling to do.
2. The Vatican and Palestine
In May, the Vatican signed a treaty with Palestine covering the status of Catholic facilities and personnel on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Because the brief text used the phrase “State of Palestine,” the treaty was spun as a breakthrough recognition of Palestinian sovereignty. In truth, the Vatican had been using the phrase “State of Palestine” in all its official diplomatic verbiage since a UN vote in 2012 to admit the Palestinians as a non-member observer state. Still, taken in combination with Francis using the phrase “Angel of Peace” in a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas around the same time, the treaty cemented the ambivalence some Israelis already felt towards Francis.
1. The Pope and ISIS
On two prominent occasions in 2015, senior aides to Pope Francis directly endorsed military action against ISIS. One came in March, when Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the pope’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, called for intervention: “We have to stop this kind of genocide,” he said. “Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t so something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.” The other came after the Paris attacks in November, when Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, said the use of force is justified because “blind violence is intolerable, whatever its origin may be.” Officials throughout the year also acknowledged that the Vatican itself could be a terrorist target, and after Paris more stringer security measures were implemented. Notably, Francis used his Christmas Urbi et Orbi address to condemn “brutal acts of terror” during the past year.