Pope Francis Wraps Up A Big Year, Prepares For A 'Year Of Mercy'
Pope Francis had a very busy year.
He traveled to Asia, South and North America and Africa. He issued a major environment document and chaired a contentious bishops' meeting on family issues. One of the world's most popular figures continued to champion the poor, reform the Vatican and spark debates within and outside the Church.
When he was elected pope, one of Francis' potential shortcomings was a lack of international experience. Less than three years later, he's a major player on the global stage.
Visiting Havana and Washington in September, Francis was hailed for his crucial role in the U.S.-Cuba thaw.
And the first pope from the global South, says papal biographer Marco Politi, was prophetic in urging a multilateral effort to combat the Islamic State.
"This is the pope who spoke already a year ago of the new risk of a third world war in bits in pieces," Politi says. "So he had understood that it is necessary that whole international community stops this threat."
The pope's encyclical on the environment was a devastating critique of a model of economic growth based on frenetic consumerism. Widely cited by world leaders, its message reached millions of people, both Catholics and not.
Last month, Francis became the first pope to visit an active war zone — the Central African Republic. In the capital, Bangui, he jump-started the Church's jubilee year of mercy by opening the city cathedral's Holy Door — a symbolic gesture of his closeness to the suffering population.
On the officialstart of the Jubilee in Rome on Dec. 8, Francis reiterated the focal issues of his pontificate: mercy and the poor.
"We have to put mercy before judgment," he said. "Let us set aside all fear and dread. Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things."
Misericordia, the Latin word for mercy, says Church historian Massimo Faggioli, means being close in our hearts to the poor.
"There is a very radical social vision of Francis here," Faggioli says. "For him, 'poor' and 'mercy' means a certain view of the economy, of criminal justice, of the social role of the Catholic Church, of ecumenism, of everything."
But that message is disturbing to many Catholics.
Their unease emerged at the synod — the bishops' meeting on the family in October — in several nasty incidents.
In a leaked letter, 13 conservative cardinals complained the synod was rigged to get predetermined results. And in interviews, some bishops vented their anxieties about the synod outcome.
Francis had urged open and frank debate, but the derogatory tone some bishops used toward him revealed a deeply divided Catholic Church.
In his closing speech, Francis took a swipe at conservatives, saying the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit.
Francis also has made substantial progress in bringing transparency to the Vatican's once murky finances, but there is strong resistance to his efforts to overhaul the entrenched bureaucracy.
Referring to the pope's last name, papal biographer Politi tells a joke circulating in the Vatican.
"Twenty percent are pro-Bergoglio [Francis], 10 percent are open adversaries and 70 percent are waiting for the next pope."
Politi points out that Francis turned 79 this month. Despite his apparent good health, it might be time — he says — to start looking at potential successors.
"If the revolution envisaged by Pope Francis has to last," Politi says, "then it will be important to see whether his successor will be such a personality who will be able patiently to bring the whole church on the level desired by Pope Francis."
In the meantime, Francis has made clear that during this Holy Year, he will continue to champion the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, seeking them out on the peripheries of society. And he will pursue his vision of the Catholic Church as a field hospital that cares for the social and spiritual wounds caused by the modern world.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.