Ten years on, the papacy of Pope Francis remains a radical work in progress

In just over a week’s time, Pope Francis will be marking ten years since the day he was elected as bishop of Rome. When he arrived in the ‘Eternal City’ for that fateful conclave, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was only carrying a small briefcase, and had already booked his return ticket to Argentina. But it was not to be; when the announcement was made that he had been elected pontiff, many thought that his choice of name – Francis – was to honour St Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Order to which the new pontiff belonged.

History has recorded a different story – during the election in the Sistine Chapel, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, archbishop emeritus of São Paulo, Brazil, and prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, is said to have congratulated the newly elected pope and urged him, “Don’t forget the poor!” Those words struck Cardinal Bergoglio, who immediately thought of Francis of Assisi, known to be a patron of peacemakers and patron of the care of creation.

Adopting the theological persona and attributes of Francis of Assisi is an overwhelming model for any man to seek to imitate, but the work and writings of Pope Francis across the past decade have confirmed his commitment to the vision of his namesake. It’s a decade that certainly hasn’t been without its controversies and divisions, though much has been the fruit of searches for resolutions to problems that were already hanging heavy over the Church and the papacy when Francis arrived.

On 13th March 2013 I had already been editing newspapers for a quarter of a century, and my life had already traversed six papacies ­ – Ven. Pius XII died when I was just three months old and St John XXIII when I was five; Paul VI and his teachings loomed heavy over my years as an altar server; Bl. John Paul I slipped past like a huge lost hope; my wife and I had our marriage blessed in Rome by John Paul II, and I had the great privilege of seeing Benedict XVI when he visited the UK in 2010.

During this time the changes in the Church have been immense. In particular the aspirations, events and outcomes of the Second Vatican Council consumed its residual generation, and brought unprecedented upheaval upon our Church, with Mass attendance plummeting and theology narrowing. Academics and historians will have to decipher eventually what really happened at Vatican II, but any attempt at analysis will ever be clouded by the moral and social upheavals that were already going on in society generally. It is ever assumed that the rapid loss of hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics, and 100,000 clergy, in the immediate post-Vatican II period was a consequence of the Council, but frankly I think this exodus was far more a consequence of external social forces than any Vatican pronouncements.

Into this tumult came John Paul II, by all accounts the first pontiff of the media and popular culture age. His good looks, charming manner and unprecedented ability to translate even the most complex theological principles into something resembling common parlance made him hugely attractive to the world’s press, and gave Catholic journalists in particular an endless stream of highly readable copy, and some of the best cover images imaginable – from sombreros to Koala bears. His encyclicals are amongst the most readable and influential in the Catholic lexicon. On the downside, even his deeply philosophical texts on the nature of the human person and his Theology of the Body did little to assuage growing divisions in the Church’s response to issues of human sexual identity, and he did even less to address the catastrophe of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

In 2005, these problems were left largely to his successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I recall that conclave vividly and it’s no unfairness to say that, as the white smoke faded, the emergence of Joseph Ratzinger on the Vatican balcony wasn’t met with overwhelming rapture. To journalists he was known as ‘God’s Rottweiler’, from his uncompromising affirmations of Catholic doctrine, especially on key matters such as homosexuality, abortion and inter-faith relations. In Ratzinger’s office, suspensions, notifications and censurings were commonplace – Leonardo Boff, Matthew Fox and Anthony de Mello were but a few who felt the cold wind of the Prefect’s distain when their theology strayed. Catholic newspapers and journals from around the world also passed daily through his office, and Joseph Ratzinger wasn’t at all averse to offering ‘advice and direction’ if it was ever felt necessary. Thankfully, no such ‘advice’ ever came my way, which I’d like to file as a compliment rather than my inconsequence!

For me the days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate were spent trying to explain to my readers (and the wider secular media) – with due caution and responsibility – such unpopular ideas as the notion that homosexuality was “an intrinsic moral evil”, no-one but Catholic can be saved, and all other Christian churches were not churches at all, but “ecclesial communities.”

When it was announced that Pope Benedict XVI was to visit Britain in 2010, some degree of trepidation certainly hung in the air at the initial planning meetings I attended. It actually made organising some of the specifics quite difficult, as everyone tried to second-guess what might be acceptable, and what might offend. There were also quite a number of anti-Catholic protests taking place on the streets  ahead of the visit, which further increased the anticipation.

In the event, from the moment he stepped from the plane at Edinburgh airport, to his departure from Birmingham three days later, the diminutive but charming person of the ex-Prefect of the CDF transformed utterly the nervous and troubled Catholic zeitgeist of the UK. After his departure for Rome so many remarked that it had seemed like a turning point in our Catholic fortunes. We were not to know that the heady darkness of unresolved crises was about to descend upon poor Benedict, who simply became overwhelmed, both physically and mentally, by the impossible burdens of his office. His resignation shocked the world, but I will ever be convinced that – without the burden that God asked Benedict to bear – there could have been no Francis.

Now 10 years into his papacy, the sheer struggle to reform and untangle the knots that have become our Church has also taken its toll on Pope Francis, but he remains determined to continue. We’ve seen a whirlwind of activity, foreign travel and reform – and an increasingly impressive written legacy is being accumulated also. At the heart of it all is the spirit of St Francis of Assisi, a drive for Gospel-based reform that has revealed a pontiff who is neither a conservative or liberal, but rather a radical. From the outset of his papacy Pope Francis has placed his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) at the centre of his mission – his vision is that our Church should take the fundamental tenets of the Gospel and evangelise to an increasingly secular world. In many respects, as he has said, “we are the disciples of Jesus”, and “all else is secondary”. This principle also lies at the heart of the synodal process that the Catholic world is navigating currently.

I recall that when Francis was first elected pope, the stories and the photographs were unprecedented – taking the coach with his cardinals, paying his hotel bill with his own credit card, his night time wanderings around the backstreets of Rome, eating pizza with the poor, and his nifty black Fiat 500. As the decade has rolled by the pictures have become more muted, but ever more significant  – meetings now with world leaders, diplomats and other movers and shakers. Like St John Paul II, the writings and sayings of Francis have a popular appeal and style that often belies their contribution to the great body of Catholic theology. They’ve made easy and attractive copy for Catholic journalists and theologians, and have helped us greatly in explaining the nuances of our faith to the laity and to the wider public. In particular, his three encyclicals – Fratelli Tutti, Laudato Si’ and Lumen Fidei – have synchronised Catholic teachings with some of the deepest human concerns of the moment, and have given Catholic teachings a fresh and timely relevance to global affairs.

Of course any pope who includes shifting the balance between supremacy and synodality in his manifesto is going to have a bumpy ride, but Francis was expecting this and, as the years go by, his determination to pursue his Franciscan model of the Church seems to have strengthened rather than become diluted. As one Catholic journalist said this week “the longer he’s gone on, the more he feels he needs to. This papacy remains a work in progress.”

I would add that this particular papacy is on a road of reform, and whatever anyone may think, there’s no reverse gear.

Please do remember our Holy Father in your prayers over the coming week. Ad multos Annos, Francis.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian.