For a man who said that his pontificate would be a short one, Pope Francis is showing no signs of slowing down at the beginning of his seventh year as the successor of Peter.
In many ways, 2018 was a roller coaster for the Argentine pontiff who turned 82 on Dec. 19, facing many uphill battles, including reform of the Vatican, the clerical sexual abuse crisis and a historic deal between the government of the global Church and that of China.
The list of actions and speeches from the pope that caused shock waves in 2018 was never-ending, with countless opportunities for him to address migration, human trafficking, the death penalty and the Church’s need to give opportunities of leadership to both young people and women.
Between his daily morning Masses, his weekly general audiences, his Sunday Angelus [and Regina Coeli] prayers, foreign trips, book-length interviews and speeches both in Italy and abroad, one thing continued to be clear during 2018: the Latin American whirlwind who shook the world in 2013, might have run out of Internet-breaking ideas, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
The son of immigrants himself and coming from Argentina, which he defined as a “cocktail of waves of migration,” Francis made his concern for migrants known from early on in his pontificate. Since then, he’s asked for every Church and monastery in Europe to host at least one migrant family- doing the same with the two churches within Vatican walls, and flew Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Italy on the papal plane on his way back from the Greek island of Lesbos.
But after the election of an extreme right and extreme left coalition to govern over Italy, 2018 was bereft of grand papal gestures on this front, and he instead focused his attention on repeating the core of his teaching on migration: welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants, while at the same time respecting the laws and customs of the country of arrival.
He actually began the year saying that fear of immigrants is not a sin, but being driven by it is, but generally reminded the world why, when it comes to migration, the Holy See is among the most liberal organizations in the world.
The death penalty
In 2017 Francis said that the death penalty was “contrary to the Gospel,” even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church, approved by St. John Paul II, said that in very rare and extreme circumstances, it could be admissible.
Yet on Aug. 2, the Vatican announced Francis was changing church teaching, declaring that it’s always “inadmissible.”
“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” reads the compendium on Catholic teaching after it was modified, with the addition that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
This is a departure from what the document, approved in 1992, said on the matter: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The former formula does stipulate that if non-lethal means are sufficient to protect people’s safety from the aggressor, then authority must limit itself to it, as these “are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
In 1997, the Catechism was changed to reflect John Paul’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The addition said that cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
A statement released by the Vatican’s press office said that Francis approved the new changes to point number 2267 of the Catechism on May 11, 2018, during a meeting with the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria.
Gays and religious vocation
Often labeled as a “gay friendly pope,” because of his famous “who am I to judge” quote, 2018 saw a pontiff who didn’t back down when it comes to skepticism about gays in the priesthood.
In a book-length interview on religious life published earlier this month, Francis said that homosexuality within the walls of seminaries, convents and other religious places where clergy live is “a very serious question.”
“In our societies, it even seems homosexuality is fashionable. And this mentality, in some way, also influences the life of the Church,” the pontiff continued, in a book he reviewed in full in Spanish before it was printed.
He also spoke about the importance of the selection process when men want to go into seminary, saying that formators must look for “human and sentimental maturity.”
The pope also commented on a clergyman who had told him that having gays in Catholic religious housing “isn’t so grave” because it’s “only an expression of affection.”
That reasoning “is in error,” Francis told the priest who interviewed him for the book. “In consecrated life and priestly life, there is no place for this kind of affection.”
As he’s done with several other topics, however, there was a difference between Francis the teacher and Francis the world’s parish priest. In April, while meeting a Chilean survivor of clerical sexual abuse who’s gay, the pope reportedly said that it doesn’t matter: “God made you like this and loves you like this and it doesn’t matter to me. The pope loves you like this, you have to be happy with who you are.”
The usual odds and ends
Beyond the major themes of 2018, here are some bits and pieces from the papal beat that helped define the past year, and in many ways, it could be a cut-and-paste exercise from previous yearly round-ups, as again, there were many common threads.
One of them is the continued opposition to Francis from some of the Church’s most conservative quarters, led this year by Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former papal representative in the United States.
Though he didn’t openly challenge the pope until August, ever since he’s led the charge against Francis and several of his closest allies.
This year also saw what many observers described as the first “blink” from a man known for being hard to persuade once he’s made up his mind, when he decided to accept the resignation of a Nigerian bishop who, appointed by Benedict XVI, was never allowed to set foot in the diocese of Ahiara.
It was also a year in which Francis used his political capital to call for peace in every corner of the world, particularly in the Middle East, but also on the Korean peninsula and two of the most contentious Latin American countries: Venezuela and Nicaragua.