ROME – Forget what it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the Code of Canon Law. In terms of popular opinion, the papacy is basically an impossible job, since people expect popes to be media rock stars, world-class preachers and Fortune 500 managers all at once, to say nothing of living saints.
People also expect popes to be savvy political operators, able to wave a magic wand and make all the world’s problems disappear. That’s a completely unrealistic vision, of course, but that doesn’t stop popes from trying, and Pope Francis perhaps more than most.
From early on, Francis has aspired to be a “Peace Pope,” aiming to tackle what he calls a “Third World War” being fought in pieces in the early 21st century. From helping to prevent a Western military intervention in Syria in 2013 to his role in easing Cold War tensions between the United States and Cuba, Francis holds his own with St. Pope John Paul II as a pontiff vitally engaged in the geopolitics of his day.
2017 brought another active year for Francis in the pursuit of world peace, along with the other core objectives of his social agenda.
In 2014, the pope denounced the “crime against humanity” that is modern day slavery. In 2015, his focus shifted to the environment, with his encyclical on the topic Laudato Si. Last year, he paid special attention to the migrant crises around the world, particularly the one afflicting his own backyard in Europe.
Ever the pope of the poor, Francis marked the first-ever World Day of the Poor in 2017.
The pursuit of peace
Nothing, however, rivaled the pursuit of peace in 2017.
In November, the Vatican organized a major conference urging nuclear disarmament, where Francis said that the theory of deterrence is not morally licit and that these weapons of mass destruction “betray a mentality of fear.”
On Nov. 2, speaking at a Sicilian-American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, where nearly 8,000 U.S. war dead are buried, the pontiff prayed for all the dead on the Feast of All Souls, but especially those “lying here … at a time when the world is once again at war.”
“We pray for all the dead, and especially these young people, in a moment in which so many young people die in battles every day because of this world war ‘in pieces’,” he said, using his familiar expression to describe a world in which there isn’t a single massive global conflict, but dozens of smaller-scale wars being fought in various parts of the world.
“Even children are dying,” he said. “Death is the fruit of war, and may the Lord give us the grace to cry.”
His foreign trips also had peace at the core of their messages, he warned that the Korean conflict threatens a “good part” of humanity, and early in the year he combined his peace-pope hat with the environmental one, saying that the world is headed towards a war over water.
Odds and ends
Beyond the major themes of 2017, here are some bits and pieces from the papal beat that helped to define the past year.
Opposition to Francis from some of the Church’s most conservative quarters continued, with a group of conservative theologians accusing him of spreading heresy back in September. Though it caused quite a stir at the beginning, the bang soon turned out to be a whimper.
Also going after the pontiff was U.S. theologian Father Thomas Weinandy, former doctrine chief to the U.S. bishops, who resigned as a consultant to the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine after a letter he had sent the pope became public. In it, he told Francis that in his document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, “your guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching.”
In October, Francis decried a ‘eugenic tendency’ to eradicate people with disabilities, he acknowledged that as a result of her failures the Church must promote child safety, and denounced that amassing wealth while children die is an “idolatry that kills.” He also called for a Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazonian region.
This year was also a big one for those who believe the Virgin is appearing in a small Bosnian town, Medjugorje. The pope appointed a Polish bishop to study the pastoral situation of the place, that has become a pilgrimage site for millions, who flock to it every year to pray. Archbishop Henryk Hoser was appointed by the pope in February to study the pastoral care given to the town’s residents and visiting pilgrims, and he’s been openly positive about his findings.
In November 2016, Francis poked fun at Medjugorje, during an encounter that was published in February, but answering questions from reporters during his trip back from Fatima, he struck a different note: “Three things must be distinguished,” Francis said, beginning with the credibility of the messages attributed to Our Lady of Peace, as described by a group of seers, conceding that the original messages deserve further investigation.
In July, Francis got involved in the Charlie Gard drama, siding with the parents of the terminally ill 10-month old who was at the center of a legal battle in the United Kingdom. Despite several hospitals coming forth in an attempt to offer treatment, including the pope’s Bambino Gesu, the baby died on July 24.
In June he threatened with suspending the priests of a Nigerian diocese, in a saga that is still far from resolved, and in May, he tried to mend the left v. right divide by saying that the Church is like a river, and that the important thing is to be in it: “If you are in the center or more to the right or to the left, but within the river, this is a legitimate variety … So many times we want the river to narrow only on our side and condemn others … this is not fraternity. Everyone inside the river. All. This is what you learn in seminary.”
The list of actions and speeches from Francis that caused shockwaves in 2017 could go on forever, with him speaking about virtually every topic, either in his daily morning Masses, his weekly Wednesday audiences where as of late he’s been focusing on the Mass, his Sunday audiences and the endless string of meetings he has every day.
Little is known about what’s in the papal calendar come Jan. 1 beyond a trip to Chile and Peru, and a possible visit to Ireland to participate in the World Meeting of Families. One thing is clear about the man who just turned 81: Don’t expect this Latin American whirlwind to slow down anytime soon.