When Pope Francis was elected five years ago today, he came into office with a reform mandate and a vow to make the Church less self-referential, focused on the peripheries rather than the center. Many of the challenges ahead seemed obvious: shaking up the Roman curia, cleaning up the Vatican’s finances, and continuing the work of clerical sex abuse reform efforts.
Then there was the question of pastoral priorities and what he would focus on as pope. Five years later, the central theme of mercy has become a dominant one in his ministry, along with a renewed focus on young people, and a global spotlight on the environment and the plight of migrants and refugees.
On this anniversary, Crux spoke with Catholic leaders around the globe — from folks who work alongside him, to those who are responsible for carrying out his mission to the world’s peripheries — to hear firsthand what’s surprised them most about the Francis papacy and what they consider to be his unfinished business.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York
When he visited New York in 2015, I saw, first-hand the tumultuous and enthusiastic reception of hundreds of thousands – millions, really – of New Yorkers to Pope Francis. To this day, people will approach me to say, “I’ve been away from the Church for years, but Pope Francis is drawing me back,” or “I’m not a Catholic, but I sure love this pope.” To me, that remains his greatest gift, to take the Church’s timeless teaching and present it in a new, daring, exciting way. He is helping people take a fresh look at the Catholic Church, and thereby come to know Jesus, and experience His love and mercy.
I think it is unfair to talk about disappointments or unfinished business. Rome moves like a glacier! There is always more work to be done. I’ve been Archbishop of New York for nearly 9 years, and my to-do list feels even longer than on the day of my installation; for that matter, I am sure that, even after nearly 27 years as pope, Saint John Paul II still had “unfinished business” that he wished he could attend to. Having watched this pope up-close, particularly through two month-long synods, I found him to be very interested in listening to others, to a collegial style of governance, and to a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy. All of which is important, no doubt, but pales in comparison to his true mission, of bringing souls to Jesus. And on that, he is doing superbly.
Sister Sharon Euart, Executive Director of the Resource Center for Religious Institutes and former Associate General Secretary to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Pope Francis has employed a new language of word and gesture to electrify people by the essential joy of the Gospel. His preference for the forgotten – women, men and children on the margins of Church and society – forces Catholics to look beyond sectarian concerns to embrace a wounded world. His message of love and his tender concern for all people spans divisions to unite distant and disparate people. His efforts to build communion (union-with) amid cacophony and conflict motivates us to go beyond the superficial to recognize the fundamental dignity of others.
I believe that one of the more significant areas of unfinished business concerns the role of women in the Church. Meaningful action is needed to change the present ecclesiastical culture. Pope Francis must translate words into deeds. My hope is that Pope Francis will encourage bishops and other leaders to engage laywomen and women religious in new and significant ways at all levels of Church. Pope Francis’s appointment of more women to positions of leadership, while continuing to listen to women’s concerns about the life and mission of the Church, would respond to the need he identified early in his papacy “to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” (Evangelii Gaudium 103).
Marilú Esponda, Spokeswoman of the Diocese of Mexico City and founder of Variopinto, a communications agency
There are so many things to highlight! If I can give only two, I would say that the best things of this pontificate so far would be, on the one hand, that the pope has managed to generate an interest for Christ’s message in very many who are far from the Church. On the other, he’s generated an acute and necessary self-criticism towards those of us who are inside, but above all towards those who have important responsibilities of government, so that we live in a way that is consistent with what we believe in.
Pope Francis has achieved this with a challenging and concrete style, criticizing what is wrong with the world and in the Church, and inviting us to go back to what is essential: become more like brothers and sisters to each other, because we have a common father, and therefore, become more human.
I believe that the biggest challenge that the pope has today is the lack of docility- the resistance to change- among those of us who belong to the Church. To each of us, the shoe presses us in a different place, but we all have in common the conviction that we are good enough and we’re not willing to change, to be renewed, to be open to the demands of the Gospel and the world of today, as the Vicar of Christ interprets them.
The challenge the pope has is to ensure that all of us who are baptized are good witnesses of the Divine Mercy, as we face a de-Christianized and de-humanized world. Everything else – the reforms in the Roman curia, etc. – has a secondary importance, as a path towards the main thing.
Juan Vicente Boo, Rome correspondent for the Spanish daily ABC and author of two books on Pope Francis, El Papa de la Alegría (“The Pope of Joy”) and Píldoras para el Alma (“Pills for the soul”)
I believe that he’s gently leading Catholics towards a way of praying and acting that is much closer to that of the early Christians, who changed from within a materialistic, exploitative and brutal society.
He’s helping everyone to overcome the Manichaeism – of some people who practice the Pharisee’s prayer instead of the publican’s – and the negativism and constant complaining about the world in which we live.
The achievements of a pontificate are not measured in the short term, as in politics or soccer, especially with a pope who considers it’s less important to “control spaces” than to “initiate processes.”
Francis “pushes” vigorously and with his personal example, basic ideas of his predecessors, such as mercy of John Paul II, or ecology and poverty from the Benedict years.
His way of acting and his teachings are remedying an anomaly of Constantine times that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) used to call “the imperial Church”: the moment when the bishops came to have military escorts, court robes, palaces, etc. And residues of anomalies of many centuries of pontifical States, because at the intermediate levels of the Vatican the air of “court” still remains.
As for unfinished business, Francis is governing in a more intense and effective way than John Paul II in his first five years, when the Vatican Curia didn’t take him fully seriously because he was from Poland and because he was a mystic. For instance, the creation of a council of nine cardinals from around the world in parallel to the Vatican Curia or converting the ad limina visits into two meetings where dialogue is free, have allowed Francis to break the bottlenecks and return the protagonism of evangelization to those who are in the front row. He’s done so as well by creating cardinals from peripheral countries, whose personal profile resembles that of the first apostles.
I believe that the greatest disappointment comes from having trusted people who have not responded to their trust or who have served him poorly. For example, in the Vatican, the former prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, who is not very sensitive to victims of sexual abuse; the secretariat for the Economy, who was unable to work in a team; or the prefect for Liturgy, whom Francis has had to disavow twice in public already.
And now, we also see certain criticisms amplified by economic sectors such as coal bunkers, oil companies, speculative funds or weapons industries, which consider Francis as an uncomfortable character or an enemy.
Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice
I love when he speaks or writes. I don’t know how many times I’ve read The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato si’. To have the leader of the Church that so speaks to my heart—what a treasure, really!
As for disappointments, the two very human issues that roil our Church are women’s leadership and the sex abuse scandal. I wish he could engage those two with the heart that he writes about and not as a political or structural issue.
Carolyn Woo, Former CEO of Catholic Relief Services and Distinguished President’s Fellow for Global Development at Purdue University
I think that with his first encyclical, the pope very clearly brings back the joy of the gospel that can sometimes be lost in all of the theology and the teaching. It’s almost like someone singing, particularly with his proclamation of mercy—which, of course, he followed up with a Year of Mercy. It’s a sense that the pope’s priority is for the salvation of people and that he cares most that people have a way to get back to God and that we are all here to help people get back to God rather than stand in the way. He really challenges the Church hierarchy to consider if they are helping people find their way back to God and as shepherds, he asks, do you know your flock?
The two areas I’m disappointed about are the handling of sex abuse problems within the Church and the issue of engaging and welcoming women to the Church. Even though the pope has created a commission and called for an honest and courageous response, for whatever reason, it’s stuck somewhere. I think we still need to get to the bottom of how extensive this abuse is, and we need to own these abuses, we need to provide apologies, we need to do penance, we need to seek forgiveness so that there can be healing, and we must prevent this from happening in the future.
On the issue of women, I am not a person who stands on the need for women to be ordained. I know people care deeply about that, but I actually can accept the Church’s teaching and say that is not in the works. But acknowledging this, I think a lot more can be done to welcome women into the Church. The Church has not really done enough to engage the talents of women, their intellectual capabilities, their administrative capacities. I think much more can be done to recognize women theologians, to put people on advisory councils in a way in which it is not a token, for them to be well represented in Vatican academies, for them to have a place at the table when doctrine is being formulated, for them to staff important pontifical councils and dicastries, for them to have a more recognized role in parish councils—at every level the Church needs to legitimize the gifts of women.
Greg Burke, Director of the Vatican’s press office, former advisor to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and correspondent for Fox News and Time
In a world that bombards us each day with a growing number of distractions and temptations and false idols, Pope Francis has done an extraordinary job in getting out a very simple message that is at the heart of the Gospel: God loves you, and God forgives you.
And there’s more. There’s joy, the Joy of the Gospel. Francis knows – and shows — that if you read the Gospel and try to live your life following Christ closely, you are going to have a deep, interior joy.
Despite all our faults, all our sins, all of our nastiness, big and small, God loves us, and God forgives us. The parable of the prodigal son plays out again and again in the course of our lives. God is the merciful and loving father, waiting outside to embrace us before we can even knock on the door. Pope Francis has reminded everyone of how God absolutely smothers us with his love, and has challenged us to share that love with others.
As for unfinished business, one of the pope’s main goals is changing a mentality, helping everyone in the Church know that he or she is here for service and not for power. This has been unfinished business since day one, if you look at Christ’s words to the Apostles, and it won’t change overnight. But Pope Francis has certainly helped set the tone for that change.
Paulina Guzik, journalist and professor of communications of Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, Poland
The best thing about Pope Francis that absolutely changed the lives of Christians around the world for me is the example that he’s giving and – by it – making people follow him. We listened to other popes, they inspired us, of course, they crushed deadly totalitarianism, we were happy that they came visit. And then we were coming back to normal life. Pope Francis has made his teachings and deeds so down to Earth and yet so Evangelical that people follow him – on a daily basis. People working in banks devote their afternoons to working for the homeless, doctors are spending their free time in field hospitals for the poor, whole families are peeling carrots that lands later in a soup for the homeless (twice a week for a second season now it happens in Krakow and other cities in Poland) – only because Francis inspired them. He accomplished the mission of accompaniment – come, let’s go together, I’ll show you how to kiss the feet of the refugees, I’ll show you what buying a pizza means for the homeless, I’ll show you what Jesus would do if he was here today. Making people follow his example on a daily basis is for me a great milestone of this pontificate. Living a gospel became real under Francis.
One thing I really want to see him accomplish is the influence on the Global Compact for Migration – he calls migration a sign of the times and improving or rather creating proper global migration policies I would dare to say is a political task as important as the fall of communism for John Paul II. I wish the Vatican structures were able to influence not only the UN but – through episcopal conferences – governments of particular countries to change their refugee policies. I’m not only talking about Poland but also the U.S. and many other countries.
Father John Wauck, communications professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome
The best thing about Pope Francis’s papacy so far has been his ability to get a hearing from people who would not have given Benedict XVI or John Paul II the time of day. It has been, quite literally, an eternity since we saw a pope’s picture “on the cover of the Rolling Stone,” and that photo is emblematic of a new openness toward the papacy on the part of sectors of society previously hostile or indifferent. Now, some might suggest that such people pay attention to Pope Francis only because he seems to tell them what they want to hear, but while, as time has passed, that may be true of some people, my own experience immediately after the conclave tells me that the extraordinarily positive response to Pope Francis was not based on an analysis of his stances on particular issues. It pre-dated any knowledge of his views. Recently, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro has insisted that Pope Francis is not a “nice” pope, but I do think that his initial popularity stemmed largely from his apparently natural, approachable, regular-guy persona. He came across as a more familiar fatherly figure than the somewhat professorial Benedict or the larger-than-life John Paul II. Of course, it remains to be seen what the fruit of this expanded attention will be, but the opening and the engagement are themselves clearly a positive development.
It is natural that, after only five years of a papacy, much unfinished business should remain, and this pontificate is no exception: the response to the sexual-abuse crisis, the reform of the Vatican’s finances, communications reform, and the reform of the Roman Curia all fall in the category of unfinished business.
But there is unfinished business of a deeper sort as well.
When he became pope, Francis stressed the need for the Church to leave the sacristy and go out to the world, to resist the temptation of being self-referential and engage the “peripheries” of society and of human experience. After five years, however, the Church seems to be trapped in a divisive internal debate, and an enormous amount of spiritual and intellectual energy, which might have been spent on works of service and apostolate, has been spent instead discussing Amoris Laetitia and, more specifically, the doctrinal and disciplinary implications of a quintessentially in-house matter: communion for the divorced and remarried. As a consequence, the outward-looking Church that Francis hoped for is still struggling to raise its head. On its way out of the sacristy, the Church didn’t get much further than the Communion rail.
Similarly, it was hoped that the first South American pope would be the herald of a vibrant new era in the life of the Church in that vast continent, yet Pope Francis’s recent visit to Chile – described in these pages as “his first could-be flop” – was his least successful trip so far, marred by church burnings, small crowds, and controversy over sexual abuse. Moreover, the trip called attention to the sad fact that the pope has yet to visit his native Argentina, where, for political reasons, he receives less friendly treatment than in the rest of the world. At the same time, in Venezuela and Cuba, the Church still suffers grievously. Here too, in terms of ecclesial “geography,” the high expectations inspired by the pope’s inaugural voyage to Brazil, for World Youth Day in 2013, have yet to be met.