ROME – A picture, allegedly, is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, each of the following images of the most vivid and important moments for Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in 2019 ought to capture what these events represent just as well, if not more so, than any reporting or analysis.
From January to December, these images follow Francis’s major movements, whether it was travel, attempting to get on top of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, advancing interreligious dialogue — or, as he’s often wont to do, stirring up controversy.
January 22-27, Francis was in Panama for the Vatican-sponsored World Youth Day event, during which he warned young people not to let technology replace personal relationships and urged them to do their part in caring for the environment.
Francis traveled to Abu Dhabi Feb. 3-5 to advance Catholic-Muslim dialogue. While there, he met Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates’s minister of tolerance, and signed a joint declaration on human fraternity with Ahmed El Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University.
Later that month, Francis hosted a landmark global Feb. 21-24 summit on child protection at the Vatican, which was attended by the presidents of all bishops’ conferences worldwide, which sought to expel the notion that child sexual abuse is only a Western problem, and which emphasized the need to listen to survivors. Several concrete action points were issued.
During a March 30-31 visit to Morocco in March, where he again sought to strengthen Catholic-Muslim relations, Francis encouraged the country’s tiny Catholic population and spoke out against terrorism and indifference toward migrants.
At the beginning of April Francis and the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby, invited the highest civil and ecclesial authorities of South Sudan to Rome for an “ecumenical retreat.” Francis made what is possibly one of his most moving political gestures when, at the end of the gathering, he bent down and kissed the feet of leaders on each side of the conflict in a plea for peace.
April also served as a stark reminder of the reality of global Christian persecution when a series of gruesome bombings hit churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 300 people on Easter Sunday, most of whom were Christians celebrating Mass.
During a May 5-6 visit to Macedonia and Bulgaria, Francis made a push for his defense of migrants and refugees and sought to advance relations with Orthodox Christian churches. In Macedonia, he also paid homage to St. Teresa of Calcutta, whom he canonized in 2016 and has often hailed as an incarnation of the mercy he advocates.
On a May 31-June 2 visit to Romania, Francis beatified seven bishops of the Eastern rite church who refused to abandon their faith under Romania’s communist dictatorship and condemned discrimination against the Roma community, often referred to as “gypsies.” He continued efforts to strengthen relations with the Romanian Orthodox Church.
Typically a slow month around the Vatican, this July Francis, true to form, kept busy with several high-level meetings, including a private July 4 audience with Russian President Vladimir Putin, marking their third meeting since Francis’s election in 2013. Notably, a day later Francis met with leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, whom he invited to Rome for two days of meetings with top Vatican officials.
On Aug. 21, an Australian court rejected an appeal by Australian Cardinal George Pell to overturn his conviction on sexual abuse charges. Last December Pell was found guilty of abusing two choirboys in the 1990s, making him the most senior Vatican official ever to be charged and convicted for child sexual abuse. Following the August ruling, Pell’s defense team issued an application for a second appeal to Australia’s High Court, which accepted the case in November. A hearing will be scheduled once the court is back from their summer break in February 2020.
Francis made a lengthy Sept. 4-10 trip to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, where he made several visible acts of solidarity with the poor, visiting a settlement for impoverished families that was built by missionaries in Madagascar. He also defended the rights of migrants and care for the environment, speaking out against deforestation and the general pillaging of the continent’s resources.
In what was perhaps his most news-making month, Francis in October gave red hats to 13 new cardinals and hosted one of the most controversial events of his papacy in a Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. His new cardinal picks were widely recognized as an illustration of the priority he gives to missions, interreligious dialogue and migrants and refugees.
Furor during the synod surrounded not only proposals to open a regional door to married priests, but an image of a semi-naked woman on a canoe that came to be known as the “Pachamama,” a female fertility figure representing Mother Earth venerated by peoples in the Andes and portions of the Amazon. Papal loyalists defended the pope’s gathering as an attempt to support rural indigenous communities and embrace an inculturated faith, whereas critics accused the gathering of attempting to eliminate priestly celibacy and of flirting with heresy by endorsing pagan idol worship.
In an eyebrow raising move, in mid-November René Brülhart, the Swiss lawyer who, since 2012, has led a new anti-money laundering watchdog unit created under Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, resigned following an unexplained raid on his office by Vatican Gendarmes as part of a probe of a shady property deal made by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Many observers said Brülhart’s resignation marked a major blow to the pope’s financial reform efforts.
Francis fulfilled a lifelong dream of visiting Japan as part of a tour of Asia that also included a stop in Thailand. During the Nov. 19-26 trip, he urged interreligious dialogue and spoke out against nuclear weapons.
In what has been hailed by both experts and survivors of clerical sexual abuse as a major step forward in the pope’s efforts to ensure child protection, Francis issued a new decree abolishing papal secrecy in abuse cases and raising the age of what is considered to be a minor in child pornography to 18.
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
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