On Dec. 18, Pope Francis’s 82nd birthday, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge tweeted out a picture of the pontiff and Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo with the caption “They say Michelangelo did his greatest work in his 80s […] The best, strangely, is still to come.”
While good and bad may lie in the eye of the beholder, one thing is for sure: 2018 was not the year in which the world saw the successor of Peter slowing down. On the contrary, the past 12 months have been busy, if not just a little bit rocky, for history’s first pope from the global south.
Francis continued his globe-throttling efforts to shine a light over things he’s particularly concerned about; he had a first-hand experience like never before of the impact of the clerical sexual abuse crisis; and he tried to revive his efforts to reform the Catholic Church, both in Rome and abroad.
Chile and Peru, January
Exchanging Rome’s winter season for Latin America’s summer turned out to be a somewhat gelid experience for Francis in 2018. Aerial pictures of the trip to Chile showed much less popular enthusiasm then those taken five years ago during his visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Francis’s first international trip.
Though there are many possible explanations, from logistics to weather, the truth is that there was one key reason: the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
Until the end of January, Francis failed to see the scope of the damage, and particularly, to believe survivors who shouted at the top of their lungs that Bishop Juan Barros, whom the pope had transferred in 2015 to the southern diocese of Osorno, had covered up for the abuses of his mentor, former priest Fernando Karadima.
The pope kicked-started the trip scoring an early win, apologizing for clerical sexual abuse during his first public speech.
“I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame I feel for the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church,” Francis said during the welcoming ceremony in the presidential palace. “I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and to make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”
Yet most of the trip went downhill from there, with Barros being present at every public papal event, captured on loop by every TV camera, and sexual abuse survivors being featured in every talk show and media outlet saying that they’d heard enough apologies and that the time for decisive action had arrived. Francis met with Chilean victims on the day of his arrival, but many saw it as too little, too late.
In addition, Francis’s welcome to Santiago, the country’s capital, was tepid at best, with protesters firebombing churches and empty streets greeting the popemobile.
To make matters worse, before his last public appearance in Chile and right after celebrating the first ever-papal airborne wedding, Francis was questioned by a reporter about Barros, and he publicly sided with the bishop, saying that until he saw evidence to the contrary, the accusations against the prelate were “calumny.”
This would lead Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the pope’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, to publicly distance himself from the pope in a statement saying he understood the pain Francis’s words could cause survivors.
Editorials and op-eds calling the pope tone deaf when it comes to clerical sexual abuse abounded, and public opinion regarding the pontiff began to shift, particularly among those who until then had been ready to defend him.
During the press conference on his way back to Rome, the pope said he regretted his word choice for his defense of Barros, but stood by it.
Not ten days later, and according to what some sources have told Crux, after seeing aerial images of his visit to Chile, Francis decided to send two representatives, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Spanish Father Jordi Bertomeu to the Latin American country to look into the Barros case. They would return with a 2,600-page dossier, the fallout of which is still being felt, both in Chile and in Rome. Again, more on this to follow.
Switzerland, in June
In June, Francis took a day trip to Geneva to address the World Council of Churches (WCC) regarding peace initiatives for Syria.
When he arrived in Geneva to mark the 70thanniversary of the foundation of the WCC, he did so following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, who also visited WCC headquarters to deliver a papal stamp of approval to one of the most significant ecumenical efforts in Christian history.
In what marked his 23rd visit outside of Italy since becoming pope, Francis’s day trip to what is arguably the world capital of diplomacy to engage in some spiritual diplomacy of sorts, gave a booster shot to ongoing ecumenical efforts between various Christian communities.
If the past five years of his papacy were dedicated to the theme of building a “culture of encounter,” it’s fair to summarize his visit to Geneva as an “encounter between churches.”
Ireland in August
It was supposed to be a short visit to put a bow on the World Meeting of Families. Yet, much like Chile, the trip became all about clerical sexual abuse and Francis’s response to it.
Some could argue that during the packed 32-hour visit to Ireland, which included a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine of Knock and an homage to the patron saint of recovering alcoholics, the pope got to experience a “classic” Irish day, with all four seasons- summer, spring, autumn and winter- on display, not only in a meteorological sense, but in a cultural and ecclesiological one too.
Although many countries around the world have faced the scorching summer heat of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, Ireland is arguably unique in the depth and scale of its experience, because of how pervasive the reach of the Church there has been.
“It’s not so much that crimes were committed,” a taxi driver told Crux days before the visit speaking about why he wasn’t going to be attending any papal events.
“They’re unforgivable, yes, but the Church is composed of human beings. It’s that they covered up.”
Popular reaction was, much like autumn’s colors, a bit amber, reflecting perhaps the “Church that was,” with tickets to all major events handed out but with thousands not attending, which became particularly evident at the closing Mass in Phoenix Park on Sunday, Aug. 26.
Francis also braved winter during those two days, made frigid by the rapid secularization of Ireland. Divorce rates are up, gay marriage was legalized through a referendum, the Irish prime minister is the country’s first openly gay head of government, and a second referendum in May of this year resulted in repealing a constitutional amendment that banned abortion. All three of these were made possible in part with the vote of thousands of Catholics.
Weekend Mass attendance dropped from 90 percent in the late 1970s to 30 percent now.
As with most papal visits, the jury is still out regarding the impact the overnight trip will have in the long term, but many had hoped in the weeks leading to it that it might provide enough boost for a new, spring-like bloom to Catholicism in Ireland.
The fact that the papal visit ended with a former representative of the Vatican to the United States accusing Francis of having covered up for former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, however, guaranteed that if there is a spring-time for the Church in Ireland as a result of the papal trip, it’ll probably be late in blooming.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in September
As autumn was beginning in Rome, the pope once again packed his bags for what most journalists travelling with Francis on a regular basis have dubbed the most physically grueling of his tours so far: a four-day visit to the Baltics.
Despite the many challenges reporters covering the pope faced, it was perhaps the opposite for him, who led a “friendly invasion” even as Russia loomed large in the background, offering the pope the opportunity to take a break from the financial and sexual abuse scandals that were absorbing the Vatican at the time of his visit.
Though he did address the issue of abuse, the four-day visit offered the pope the opportunity to return to his passion for promoting a Church of dialogue, mercy and closeness to the people.