[Editor’s note: For the entire world, including the Catholic Church, 2016 was a tumultuous and in some ways stunning year. From the Catholic take on Brexit in the U.K. to Trump v. Clinton in the U.S., from Pope Francis’s six overseas trips to his widely discussed document on the family Amoris Laetitia, to the scores of new martyrs in various parts of the world to a remarkable renaissance of the faith elsewhere, the past 12 months had almost as many plot turns and surprise twists as a potboiler novel – with the key difference that it all actually happened.
In this three-part series, Crux’s Inés San Martín reviews 2016 through a Catholic lens. Part one looked at the Church in the United States; part two surveyed the year for the Global Church; here, part three hits the highlights of another remarkable year for Pope Francis, who capped 2016 by celebrating his 80th birthday.]
ROME — Having been on the cover of countless newspapers and magazines since the beginning of his pontificate, making a selection of the top Pope Francis stories for 2016 seems almost an impossible challenge.
From the Jubilee Year of Mercy to his airborne press conferences at the end of six foreign trips that always address a wide array of topics, the pope made constant news, and that’s not to mention his one-on-one interviews, in the latest of which he said the media should avoid indulging its popular love of smut.
Yet let’s try, dividing it all into four categories: papal travel, Francis and refugees, Amoris Laetitia and Church government.
For a look back to the key moments of the Year of Mercy, go here.
For a man known for his reticence about traveling, Francis has left Italy more times than had originally been forecast, with six trips abroad in 2016 alone.
The year kicked off with a politically charged visit to Mexico, where he not only venerated Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, but also did a south-to-north pilgrimage, similar to the route thousands of immigrants take in their journeys towards the United States.
The trip began in Mexico City, from where Francis headed to the crime-ridden and impoverished suburb of Ecatepec, where he delivered a classically personal warning against the temptations of “wealth, vanity, and pride.” He then traveled south, to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, with the highest concentration of indigenous persons in the country, and from there he demanded justice for Mexico’s indigenous communities.
Then, it was on to Morelia, known as Mexico’s “murder capital,” scarred by the grip of narco-terror gangs, and where Francis urged the youth to remember that Jesus would never call on them to become “hitmen.”
And finally, Ciudad Juárez on the U.S./Mexico border to make a statement about the human dignity of immigrants, in a Mass where he was flanked by several American prelates, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
An entire section could be dedicated to the pre-Mexico layover in Cuba, where he signed a historic declaration with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, cashing in on decades of ecumenical relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin.
Yet Mexico was only one trip. In April, he made another to the Greek island of Lesbos. In June he traveled to Armenia, where he once again invoked the magic word “genocide” with regard to the slaughter of Armenians by Turks during the WWI era, and delivered several lessons as to why ecumenism matters.
In July he was off to Krakow, in Poland, where he led over two million youth who had traveled to the land of St. John Paul II and St. Faustina Kowalska to participate in the itinerant Catholic festival known as World Youth Day.
In Poland, Francis visited the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, from where he offered the world a powerful lesson in “man’s humanity to man” by meeting 25 “Righteous Among the Nations.”
At the very end of World Youth Day, Pope Francis told a crowd in excess of two million people gathered on a field outside Krakow not to be deterred by those who want to present the image of an insensitive God, and to believe in the power of God’s mercy.
And in the last quarter of 2016, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue were once again at the top of the papal travel agenda, with visits to Georgia and Azerbaijan in late September-early October and Sweden in November, to mark the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation.
Azerbaijan has such a small Catholic community that some would argue that had it not been for Francis’s interreligious outreach, it would have been cheaper to fly them to Rome than the pope there.
Once again, a case could be made for the inflight pressers alone to have their own section, with the pope answering questions about Trump, Sanders, Islamic fundamentalism, a Catholic apology to the LGTB community, women priests and much more.
Pope Francis and refugees
It’s well-known that the European migrant crisis, considered the worst since World War II, has been the key social concern for Pope Francis, son of immigrants himself, since the beginning of his pontificate.
If proof is needed of his concern for those who’ve fled countries marred by war, persecution, famine or a combination of all, remember his day trip to the Greek island of Lesbos, from where he brought three refugee families to Rome.
Before then, his stop at Ciudad Juarez, on the United States-Mexico border, hours after which he said that politicians- answering to a question about Donald Trump – who want to build walls aren’t Christian.
In the past four months alone, he’s said welcoming refugees keeps us safe from terrorism. He said that fear is a poor adviser for countries struggling to set policies for immigrants and refugees, urged people to move past indifference when it comes to their plight because “that could be you. Or me,” and called Christians who reject refugees “hypocrites.”
Back in September, the Vatican announced Francis was creating a new mega-office for Promoting Integral Human Development, to defend the rights of marginalized peoples and “attend to the inestimable goods of justice, peace, and the care of creation.”
Yet Francis threw a curveball by reserving for himself direct responsibility for refugees.
Some could argue that there’s nothing new under the sun here, since Francis’s predecessors St. Pius X and Pius XII both opened the doors to the Vatican and/or the papal summer residence for refugees.
Considering the statistics- though the pope has urged Catholics to put faces, not numbers, to the crisis- the Church’s growing concern over migrants and refugees is not without merit. By November 20, at least 4,500 people had drowned in the Mediterranean, trying to reach Europe.
Yet Francis has done more than call for every Catholic institution in Europe, from churches to monasteries, to welcome at least one refugee family: He’s also become the leading voice to find solutions to the root issues behind the refugee crisis in the countries of origin such as global warming, poverty, war and gun trafficking.
Released in April, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is a 255 page long document drawing conclusions from two tumultuous Synods of Bishops on the family in October 2014 and October 2015.
In the document, the pontiff quite literally touches on every issue concerning what he calls the “Christian proclamation on the family:” From immigration to gender ideology, to the challenge of dialogue within families and the need for stronger marriage preparation and greater support for couples just starting out.
Yet in the aftermath, most of the discussion has focused on chapter eight, which among other issues touches on the pastoral care of Catholics who find themselves in irregular relationships, particularly divorced and civilly remarried ones.
On this issue, the devil is quite literally in the detail of footnote 351, which says that in some very particular cases, people in these situations might have access to the sacraments.
Since its release, bishops began issuing guidelines insisting that nothing has changed in terms of Church law or teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, and thus decreeing that in their dioceses, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics remain ineligible for the sacraments unless they live as “brother and sister.”
Others took a more permissive line, such as the bishops of Pope Francis’s own home archdiocese of Buenos Aires in Argentina, drawing a note of encouragement from the pontiff.
In the fall, four cardinals, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, submitted a dubia, a set of yes or no questions, to Pope Francis about the meaning of Amoris. Initially the request was private, but when Francis declined to respond directly, the cardinals made their questions public.
Burke went so far as to suggest that if the pontiff does not dispel what the cardinals described as “confusion” and “disorientation” resulting from the exhortation, some sort of public correction or rebuke may be warranted.
The pope’s allies have said time and time again that Francis has in fact answered the dubia, for instance through his support of the Argentine bishops’ position, but others argue that a leaked letter based on a drafted set of guidelines is not to be considered papal magisterium.
No matter what either side claims, the matter seems far from resolved, and the news cycle on this one is bound to continue far into 2017.
When he was elected to the papacy in 2013 by his brother cardinals, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had openly expressed his distaste for Roman-style court politics, knew that one of the premises of his support was precisely his first-hand knowledge of how dysfunctional and slow the Vatican bureaucracy can be for outsiders.
That’s why soon after his election he created a group of nine cardinal advisers, or C9, to help him with the reform of the Roman Curia. The prelates come from every continent but Antartica, and have a diverse range of theological backgrounds.
Since the group has been meeting on average four times a year since its inception, and few announcements have been made regarding reform of the Church’s governing body, some have argued that the process is stuck.
The two key announcements from this year were the creation of two umbrella-like mega Vatican offices. One is dedicated to Human Development, and the other for all things family, laity and life, headed by American Cardinal Kevin Farrell.
Yet Cardinal Oswald Gracias of India, who sits on the pope’s C9, describes the advisory group as the “cabinet of ministers of the Holy Father,” arguing that it has become the “sounding board” of this papacy, and that although not many news flashes have come out of it, 75 to 80 percent of the big decisions Francis has made were crafted in consultation with the group.
Presumably, one of the things Francis sent his sounding board was the latest document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, which reiterated a 2005 document, that said that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” shouldn’t be admitted to Catholic seminaries and, therefore, shouldn’t become Catholic priests. The document wasn’t penned by the pontiff, but it had his seal of approval.
Finally, although the issue according to the pontiff himself garnered more hysteria than it deserved, Francis’s decision to create a papal commission to study the role of female deacons in the early times of the Church can’t be excluded from the roundup.
He suggested that such a commission could be created while he was meeting with the superiors of women’s religious orders in Rome. Days after saying creating such a commission would be interesting, the pontiff told journalists traveling with him on his way from Armenia that he was surprised at the magnitude of the reaction.
“The next day, it was as if the Church had opened the door to women deacons, but that’s not true,” he said, saying its primary role will be to ascertain the role of female deacons in the early Church.
“I believe this theme has been studied a lot, and it won’t be difficult to shed light,” the pope said.
The line-up, including American Phyllis Zagano, a prominent advocate of women deacons, was announced early August. The group held its first meeting in late November.
Although he’s kept his promise of remaining silent after his resignation, back in February 2013, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI proved that every rule is not without exceptions, allowing for the world to see him on a handful of occasions, and even giving a public address for the second time in three years.
That came in June, when the Vatican organized a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination, in a ceremony headed by Pope Francis. It was the first time in history that a reigning pope honored a retired one.
In September, Benedict also became the first pope ever to do a kind of check-and-balances of his own pontificate, with an interview book with German journalist Peter Seewald.
In it, he candidly concedes that government was not his strong suit, despite the fact that he actually authored historic reforms.