ROSARIO, Argentina — For Pope Francis, 2020 began, like every year, with “State of Affairs” speech to diplomats from around the world.
Reading it in hindsight, some might call it prophetic: “Sadly, the new year does not seem to be marked by encouraging signs,” he said, as he called on ambassadors to the Vatican to have a “realistic” hope that demands acknowledging the many troubling issues confronting the world.
In January, it seemed Francis would have a packed 2020, full of travel – although only a foray to Malta was officially in the calendar. Before the world shut down, he held meetings with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez, and Iraq’s President Barham Saleh – who extended an invitation to the pontiff to visit the country, which he readily accepted.
Iraq is, to date, the only confirmed papal trip for 2021, scheduled for March 5-8, provided that pandemic restrictions allow for it.
February was the last month of the “old normalcy,” with Francis still having a full agenda of audiences, ceremonies, and meetings with diplomats.
But around the world, news about COVID-19 expanding beyond China began, with the Diocese of Hong Kong cancelling all public religious services.
“In this difficult moment, we must not panic,” said Cardinal John Tong Hon. “We must place our trust in God and practice charity with our neighbors and the entire community.”
Not long after, the first cases began in Italy. However, Francis continued with his activities, even going to Bari, in Italy’s southern region, to pray for peace together with other bishops from the Mediterranean. During the visit, he said Mass with bishops from 19 nations, and called for the protection of Christian communities in the Middle East.
“The persecution experienced above all – but not only – by Christian communities is a heart-rending fact that cannot leave us indifferent,” the pope said. “In the meantime, we can never resign ourselves to the fact that someone who seeks hope by way of the sea can die without receiving help, or that someone from afar can fall prey to sexual exploitation, be underpaid or recruited by gangs.”
On Ash Wednesday, Lent began for Pope Francis saying Mass in the Roman church of Santa Sabina. It was arguably the last major papal event of 2020 that was celebrated with the normal presence of the faithful. But the coronavirus was already in his mind: Several times during those days he expressed his closeness to those impacted by it.
In late February, he was forced to cancel several engagements due to a cold, raising concern as the coronavirus continued to spread throughout Italy.
On March 9 the Italian government imposed a national quarantine, and life in the Vatican radically changed: Visits were officially cancelled, daily papal Masses were live-streamed, and the Vatican museums closed to the public. St. Peter’s Basilica remained open but only to those who wanted to pray. Between movement restrictions and the disappearance of tourists, the world’s most iconic Catholic Church was virtually empty.
On March 27, on a rain-swept, cold dark evening at the peak of the first COVID-19 wave in Italy, Pope Francis delivered a special blessing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square and in his remarks reminded the world that “no one is saved alone,” and that Jesus is in the boat with humanity in the midst of the stormy sea of the pandemic. This will probably remain as one of the iconic images not only of the year, but of Francis’s pontificate.
From then on, the pope’s diary seemingly emptied. However, most of his pastoral activities, beyond traveling, carried on, with Francis offering words of hope and consolation to a world in need for guidance. His daily Masses during the first months of the pandemic were live-streamed by national Italian television, and millions followed them online.
The pontiff sent dozens of respirators and protective equipment, through the Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, to countries that needed them the most, including Syria, Venezuela and Brazil. He also asked all Vatican-based cardinals and bishops to contribute to a fund to help the poor during this time of crisis, and set up a special task force to address the pandemic and its aftermath.
But being stranded in Rome and with most of his regular activities – welcoming guests, holding audiences, etc. – suspended for several months, provided the pope with the opportunity to rally on towards the reform of the Roman Curia, seeking to change its culture and redesign its structure.
The draft of the new governing structure for the Curia continued to be reviewed and is expected to be published in the first half of 2021. The council of cardinals that advises him on Vatican reform continued to meet, albeit online.
Francis also appointed Spanish Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves to head the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy.
Four officials of the Secretary of State and the director of the Financial Information Authority (that had a name change late this year) are being investigated by the Vatican’s Prosecutor’s Office over irregularities connected to a shady real estate deal in London.
A key player in the London deal, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, was removed from his role as head of the Vatican’s saint-making office and had his rights as a cadinal removed, a nearly unprecedented move.
For the first time in five years, the Holy See’s yearly balance sheet was made public, showing it had a deficit of 12 million euros in 2019. The deficit is expected to be multiplied – perhaps by fivefold – this year, due to the lack of revenue generated by the Vatican Museums.
Another big event of 2020 for Pope Francis was the renewal of the Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops, two years after it was originally signed. The Holy See considers that, without being perfect, the deal is the best of the possible agreement that builds on the efforts made by Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
2020 was also a prolific year for Francis in terms of major documents, with the first one being Querida Amazonia, an apostolic exhortation following last years’ Synod of Bishops on the Amazon.
On Oct. 3, Francis signed Fratelli Tutti at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi. This encyclical letter draws inspiration from both the saint and a document on human fraternity the pontiff had signed with the Grand Imam of Al Aznar in 2019.
Finally, in early December he published the book Let Us Dream, in collaboration with British journalist Austen Ivereigh, in which he sketches his dreams for the post-coronavirus world.
In 2020, the Vatican also released the highly anticipated report on the rise to power of former American priest and cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
The 449-page report is a detailed account of how Church leaders in the U.S. and abroad failed to hold the charming, ambitious prelate accountable, decades after rumors of serial sexual misconduct had become widespread.
McCarrick was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2018, after a survivor came forward to report he’d been abused as a child by “Uncle Ted,” as the ex-cardinal liked to be called by the throng of young priests, seminarians, and altar boys with which he surrounded himself.
The year also saw two major Vatican-sponsored events scheduled to take place in Italy become transformed into Zoom summits.
The first was on constructing a global educational pact aimed at ensuring that through education, individuals are formed into caring for the common home.
The second event was “Economy of Francis,” that was set to take place in March in Assisi, and ended up happening online in November. It was aimed at economists and entrepreneurs under 35, in an attempt to project a more inclusive economic model for the world.
Francis closed 2020 making two major announcements for next year, instituting a year dedicated to St. Joseph, and a year for the family.
The faithful are invited to especially call on St. Joseph, patron of the universal Church, for protection as “consolation and relief in the serious human and social tribulations that are gripping the contemporary world today.” Throughout the year, Catholics will have the opportunity to gain plenary indulgences for numerous acts of devotion, including the family recitation of the rosary.
The year dedicated to the family will begin on March 19, 2021, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s document on marriage, and will conclude with the celebration of the tenth World Meeting of Families in Rome, in June 2022 – it had originally been scheduled for 2021.
In November, Francis created 13 new cardinals in his seventh consistory, including the first African American cardinal – Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington.
The College of Cardinals today has 128 prelates who can vote for a successor to Francis, a majority of whom were created by the present pontiff.
If the safety conditions allow, Pope Francis has several trips in the works for 2021, although only the visit to Iraq has been announced. The trip to Malta was “postponed,” not cancelled. In addition, a trip to Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Indonesia is being talked about, as well as a visit to Lebanon. Francis has also promised to visit South Sudan with Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma