When he was elected to the papacy in March 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio knew he was chosen on a “reform” mandate. However, it’s been unclear what reform means for Pope Francis: revitalizing the public image of the Church, addressing the global clerical sexual abuse crisis, reforming the Vatican itself or leading Catholics around the world into a “pastoral conversion.”
Francis was forced to address reform on multiple fronts during the past 12 months, all testing him in different ways.
Long gone are the days in which Francis was elected person of the year by virtually every major news outlet in the world. In fact, for the first time since he was elected to the papacy in 2013, his name generated little to no buzz when the Nobel Peace Prize was approaching this year.
That’s at least partly because 2018 was a year in which the Church had many unfortunate headlines, most of which turned around the clerical sexual abuse crisis: the Pennsylvania report; the case of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, accused of sexually abusing at least three minors in addition to dozens of seminarians; Chile, where the May resignation of all the bishops was only the tip of the iceberg; and Australian Cardinal George Pell, a former member of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors, facing two trials over historical clerical sexual abuse.
All these scandals meant that this year, much of the pope’s political capital collected over the past four years was squandered. His calls for defense of migrants and protection of the environment, for instance, went largely unheeded.
This was particularly visible during the pope’s trip to Ireland, where media coverage was dominated by what many perceived as Francis’s uneven or delayed response to the abuse crisis. An accusation by a former papal ambassador to the United States during the last day of that trip added fuel to the fire, even if the many claims made by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò divided public opinion.
Among other things, Viganò claimed to have informed the Argentine pontiff about McCarrick in 2013 and said the pope not only did nothing, but he lifted a set of sanctions against the retired archbishop of Washington.
Though interlinked with every major Catholic event this year, in no other case is Francis’s push for reform as evident as in the Church in Chile.
After publicly siding with a local bishop accused of cover-up for three years -including during a trip to Chile in January, when he called allegations by survivors “calumny” -Francis made a 180-degree turn and sided with the survivors of former priest Fernando Karadima, summoned three groups of Chileans to Rome and flat-out accused the bishops of abuse, cover-up, destroying evidence and a long list of other failures.
Every Chilean bishop presented his resignation to the pope in May, after a three-day meeting in the Eternal City. So far Francis has accepted seven of them, but several more heads are set to roll, including that of the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, who at 77 has been subpoenaed by a local prosecutor on charges of cover-up.
Chile led to Francis broadening his understanding of the crisis and just how global it is in scope.
Addressing the issue at a universal level became a priority. It’s the reason why he summoned all the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences, as well as the heads of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome, to the Vatican for a Feb. 21-24 meeting. In preparation for it, prelates who’ll be traveling have been requested to meet with survivors of clerical sexual abuse.
In his annual speech to the members of the curia, meaning the Church’s Rome-based government, delivered on Dec. 21, he promised the Church would never cover up for these crimes again and warned perpetrators to be ready to face both human and divine justice.
Though the pope’s speech received a mixed response among abuse survivors, his praise of journalists for helping uncover these crimes is a stark contrast from comments made by several high-ranking prelates, some of whom are suing reporters or who’ve accused the media of creating the crisis.
Reforming the Vatican
When he was elected to the papacy in 2013, Francis knew that one of the premises of his support was his first-hand knowledge of how dysfunctional and slow the Vatican bureaucracy can be, and also how insular and “inside the beltway” its psychology can be for those who don’t have much experience out in the field.
Soon after his election, he created a group of eight cardinal advisers to help him with the reform of the Roman Curia. During 2018 the body reportedly finalized the first draft of the new constitution, to replace one approved during the papacy of John Paul II. Yet several sources have told Crux that after more than two dozen meetings, the text is more of a cut-and-paste exercise than an actual document.
Later he added the Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, but the body formerly known as the “C9” lost three cardinal members this year: Congolese Laurent Monsengwo; Chilean Francisco Javier Errazuriz, who’s been accused of cover-up; and Pell, who to this day continues, on a leave of absence, as head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy.
Beyond the work done by the group of cardinal advisors, 2018 also saw Francis adding several members to the curia, a majority of whom are Italians, and in some cases the appointments were permeated by scandals.
Of all the Vatican departments, the one that saw the most changes was the Secretariat for Communications, that was instituted in 2015. It has authority over all communications offices of the Holy See and the Vatican City State, including the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; the Holy See Press Office, headed by American Greg Burke; the Vatican Internet Service; Vatican News; the Vatican Television Center; and the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
The changes to this department began with the removal of its prefect, Monsignor Dario Edoardo Vigano, amidst the scandalous editing of a letter by Benedict XVI regarding a collection of books on Francis’s theology. He was replaced by Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, the first lay person to head a Vatican department.
On December 18, 2018, Francis appointed two other Italians to this department: long-time Vatican watcher Andrea Tornielli as Editorial Director and Andrea Monda as director of L’Osservatore Romano.
The past 12 months were a rollercoaster for Francis, but two things remained constant on the horizon, evident in every one of his trips, both abroad and within Italy: young people and interreligious dialogue as a tool for peace.
That 2018 was going to be destined to focus on young people was clear since Francis announced a Synod of Bishops on this issue, with over 300 prelates from around the world gathered in Rome to discuss how the Church can better approach young people and help them discern their vocation.
In July, Francis visited the Italian city of Bari, a gateway between Catholics and Orthodox Christianity, and the pope hosted the leaders of every major Christian communities present in Syria to pray for peace and discuss how religion can aid in the peace process of a country that has been at war for the past eight years.
Yet perhaps the biggest breakthrough when it comes to reform and pastoral conversion was one that had a big political undertone: the Vatican’s agreement with China over the appointment of new bishops and Rome’s acceptance of several illegally ordained ones.
Though not free from controversies, as many critics defined the deal as Francis yielding to the will of the Communist government, for the pope this is a door for the Catholic Church to have further freedom to minister to the more than one billion Chinese souls.