ROME – Pope Francis is famously a pontiff who seems to be missing an “off” switch, but the first quarter of 2016 shapes up as a period so dense with activity it may tax even his prodigious reservoirs of energy.
From foreign policy challenges to a potential turning point in Catholic/Jewish relations, from a six-day trip to Mexico that includes a stop at the US border, to a jam-packed schedule for his jubilee Year of Mercy, the opening part of the year promises to be full of drama.
No doubt it will all seem memorable and consequential at the time, but looking back, those moments may be recalled as no more than early tremors of what could be the new year’s first papal earthquake: Francis’ much-anticipated apostolic exhortation drawing conclusions from his two tumultuous synods of bishops on the family.
That document is now expected sometime in late February or March, with one hypothesis being a release date of March 19, the feast of St. Joseph and a patron of the family.
Though early indications are that Francis will not provide a clear “yes” or “no” to the controversial idea of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, whatever language he does supply will be subject to vast analysis, dissection, and spin.
Nor will things slow down for the pontiff later in 2016.
In July, he’ll visit Poland to lead World Youth Day, an event so sprawling it’s more or less the Olympic Games of the Catholic Church. In early September, he’s likely to preside over the canonization of Mother Teresa, a moment that should see vast crowds assemble in Rome. In October or November, he might hold a consistory for the creation of new cardinals, and he’ll formally bring the Year of Mercy to a close on Nov. 20.
All this, bear in mind, is unfolding in a year that will see Francis mark his 80th birthday on Dec. 17.
Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect over the next three months. Any such preview, however, needs to come with a warning label: Francis is forever capable of surprise, so don’t assume this is necessarily a complete list of big moments on the horizon.
Sunday, Jan. 10 — Baptisms: Popes generally celebrate Mass in the Sistine Chapel for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, during which they baptize 30 or so infants, mostly the newborn children of Vatican employees. As a footnote, it’s typically one of the few times each year Francis celebrates Mass ad orientem, meaning “to the east” or with his back to the people, the posture favored by traditionalists, and one can usually expect a cycle of commentary from liturgical gurus after the fact.
Monday, Jan. 11 — Diplomatic corps: The pope’s address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican is generally considered his most important foreign policy speech of the year. At the moment, the Vatican city-state has diplomatic relations with 180 nations, as well as the European Union, and virtually all will be represented at the pope’s talk — no doubt wondering where his next political and diplomatic breakthrough might come.
Tuesday, Jan. 12 — Book launch: Being published simultaneously in 80 countries around the world, Francis’ first book as pope comes out in the form of a lengthy interview on his jubilee year with veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli. “Even the Pope is a man who needs the mercy of God,” Francis says in it. Titled in English “The Name of God is Mercy,” the book will be presented in Rome on the 12th in an event with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and famed Italian actor Roberto Benigni.
Sunday, Jan. 17 — Synagogue visit: Francis will be the third pope to visit Rome’s storied synagogue, after St. John Paul II in 1986 and Benedict XVI in 2010. Francis generally gets high marks for his outreach to Judaism, including his well-known friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires, but is seen with ambivalence by some Jews for his stance on Israel and Palestine. When Benedict visited six years ago, Jewish leaders used the occasion to protest possible sainthood for Pope Pius XII; it remains to be seen what may be on their minds when Francis comes calling.
Thursday, Jan. 21 — Sanctuary Workers: The first major jubilee event for a specific group features a celebration for workers at shrines and sanctuaries. In effect, it’s the first chance for Francis to start drilling down about what his message of mercy implies in the nitty-gritty of Catholic life. Based in part on his Latin American heritage, the pontiff has a keen appreciation for the spiritual importance of shrines and pilgrimages.
Friday, Jan. 22 — March for Life: Francis will not attend the annual march in Washington marking the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the largest annual pro-life rally in the world, but for two years in a row, he’s Tweeted his support for the event on the same day. It’s become a source of new soundbites for the pro-life cause.
Monday, Jan. 25 — The conversion of Paul: Francis will travel across Rome to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to lead an ecumenical vespers service for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Because the basilica has long been a center of ecumenical activity, it’s generally a chance for the pope to reflect on Christian unity. It’s also the only major papal basilica in Rome currently led by an American, as Cardinal James Harvey is the archpriest.
Saturday, Jan. 30 — Jubilee audience: This will be the first of what will be a series of monthly “jubilee audiences” to be held on Saturdays, which gives Francis a platform to lay out his vision for the Year of Mercy. The events will be held in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall, and will supplement his regular weekly audiences on Wednesdays.
Tuesday, Feb. 2 — Presentation of the Lord: The feast commemorates the Biblical episode when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the temple in keeping with Jewish law. This year, Feb. 2 also marks the close of what Francis had designated as a “Year of Consecrated Life,” so expect him to reflect on the role of women and men religious in the Church.
Saturday, Feb. 6 — Padre Pio: A sociologist might argue that in Italy, the Holy Trinity isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but rather God, the Madonna, and Padre Pio. It’s hard to find a bar, restaurant, or taxi cab in the country that doesn’t have a holy card or a medal bearing the famed Capuchin stigmatic’s image, renowned for his compassion for suffering, and Francis will celebrate a jubilee day for Padre Pio prayer groups. In effect, it’s a chance to take the Year of Mercy to the populist level.
Wednesday, Feb. 10 — Ash Wednesday: Francis opens Lent this year by commissioning a special corps of priests known as “Missionaries of Mercy,” who will be his ambassadors for the jubilee. They’ll have authority to forgive sins reserved under Church law to the Holy See, such as abortion or desecrating the Blessed Sacrament. Francis may have to give them a bit of direction on Ash Wednesday, since some priests coming to Rome to take part have told Crux no one really has explained what they’re supposed to do when they go home.
Feb. 12-18 — Mexico: Papal trips to Mexico are always memorable, drawing vast crowds and generating wild enthusiasm, and certainly one by history’s first Latin American pontiff shapes up as a mega-event. The trip will end with a Feb. 17 stop in Ciudad Juarez, just across the US border from El Paso, where Francis is expected to make a major statement on immigrant rights right after Americans have chosen candidates in Iowa (Feb. 1) and New Hampshire (Feb. 9).
Friday, Feb. 22 — Jubilee of the Roman Curia: Famously, Francis took the mandarins of the Roman Curia to the woodshed in December 2014, cataloguing 15 spiritual illnesses with which he implied they may be infected, such as careerism, the “terrorism of gossip,” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.” He went a little softer this year, offering a set of virtues rather than vices. This session shapes up as a chance for Francis to lay out a vision of what a reformed Vatican bureaucracy, animated by mercy, might look like.
Friday, March 4 — Confessions: Each year, the pope holds a penitential service during Lent in St. Peter’s Basilica, during which he himself hears some confessions. Last year, Francis used the occasion to announce his jubilee Year of Mercy, and this time he can be expected to reflect on what he sees as its spiritual core. Given Francis’ passion for the sacrament of confession, this is always an event he takes seriously.
Saturday, March 19 — Apostolic Exhortation(?): It’s just a guess, but the feast of St. Joseph on March 19 is one possibility for the release of Francis’ document drawing conclusions from the two synods on the family, held in October 2014 and October 2015. Whenever it comes, it should be a watershed — presumably, the pontiff will directly address the contentious issues from those synods, including not only divorce, but also gay and lesbian relationships and people living together outside marriage.
March 24-28, Holy Week: As always, the pope’s schedule is especially dense during Holy Week, including the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual, the Good Friday Via Crucis procession, the Holy Saturday vigil Mass, the Easter Urbi et Orbi message, and the noontime prayer the day after Easter — called, during the Easter period, the “Regina Coeli” rather than the “Angelus.” Given that this presumably will be the only time the pontiff leads a Holy Week during his own jubilee year, Francis is likely to weigh his words and deeds with even greater care.