On Monday of this week, Pope Francis marked 10 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church by celebrating Mass with cardinals in the chapel of the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence where he has lived since his election. He never took possession of the papal apartments in the Apostolic palace used by his predecessors, saying he preferred to live in a community setting for his “psychological health.”
A persistent knee ailment has forced him to alternate between a cane and a wheelchair, but he reportedly said to an aide. “You don’t run the Church with a knee but with a head.”
He has also said that he would be ready to step down (as did Pope Benedict) if severe health problems limited him from running the 1,38-billion-member Church.
I remember very well the evening of March 13, 2013, when Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, who had just been elected Pope, appeared on the famous balcony overlooking St Peter’s Square in Rome. One of the reasons was because he took the name of Francis which pleased me being an animal lover. There had been speculation, but it was indeed Francis of Assisi and not Francis Xavier whom he had in mind when he chose the name.
Those who knew him were not surprised by this choice for he had shown a dedication to the simple life exemplified by St Francis. On becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he dispensed with the previous incumbent’s car and instead rode to work on the city buses. He also decided against a housekeeper and cooked his own meals.
He used the pulpit for sermons that ran counter to the government’s claims to have cut poverty rates and he had been involved in several clashes with President Cristina Kirchner, whose relationship with the local hierarchy had deteriorated following her legalisation of same-sex marriage and moves to liberalise abortion laws.
When he was proclaimed to the 100,000-strong crowd down below, there was a gasp of surprise. Many had never heard of this man from Argentina and had no idea who he was.
He had however come to the attention of others following the conclave that elected his predecessor Pope Benedict when it emerged that he had been placed in second place securing 40 votes. So, although in some quarters a Latin American pope had been widely discussed in the month since Benedict resigned, there was still an element of shock when the successor to the German pontiff was revealed.
A Clarion Call
The new pontiff set the tone for his papacy only a few months after his election with a document called Evangelii Gaudium (‘The Joy of the Gospel’). This was effectively a mission statement for “a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets.” Francis made it clear that the Church must be on the side of people living in poverty and demand action to tackle its causes. He called for an end to financial systems that prioritise profit over people.
In Washington, Pope Francis succeeded in bringing divided Congress together in applause for a message which urged lawmakers to work in a “spirit of cooperation” to put politics “at the service of the human person”, fighting against poverty, environmental damage, and conflict.
His second encyclical, Laudato Si’ is one of the most important documents written this century. His letter addressed to “every human person living on this planet”, is a clarion call for us to care for the earth – our common home. That means changing the ways we live our lives: tackling the climate crisis and ending the “throwaway culture”.
Pope Francis made no secret of the fact that he wanted decision-makers involved in the important global summits that took place in 2015 to listen to his message. And he got his wish: numerous leaders and diplomats involved in the COP21 climate conference stated that Laudato Si’ was a key force in the success of the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a historian and former editor of a Vatican magazine who has criticized Francis on some issues, called that document a “work of genius”, and a highlight of Francis’s pontificate.
Man of the Year
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has called for us to ‘welcome the stranger’ by ensuring that migrants and refugees are able to leave their homelands without risking their lives so they can live safely and with dignity.
In 2013 Time magazine called him “The People’s Pope” and named him person of the year.
Francis has run the Church keeping in mind that Europe, with its emptying pews, is no longer Catholicism’s epicenter. He has traveled to Catholic new growth zones, including Africa and Asia, and named cardinals from parts of the world that have previously been less represented. In doing so he has raised the odds that future popes will be like him– non-Western.
We do not of course know when that day will come. However, Francis has made it clear that he keeps in mind that life is short and that we have to be prepared for our death. He turns 87 on 17 December. “Time flies,” he said in a Vatican podcast on Monday, “when you gather up today, it is already tomorrow.”
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan