For Pope Francis, 2016 will be the year of decision. It will be the year of judgment—judgment on the efficacy of his pontificate and ecclesial vision. And all this in the Year of Divine Mercy. The timing is exquisite, a perfect, Jesuit-like calculation, and the risk is enormous.
The world—Catholic and otherwise—has been either enthralled or horrified by the Argentine Pope’s daring, his unpredictability, his expansive warmth, his fierce righteousness. He thinks nothing of departing from the script, excoriating luxury-loving prelates, unseating those acclimated to privilege and protocol, castigating secular powers indifferent to the plight of the planet, taking on peace initiatives where more cautious minds would tread with trepidation and siding unequivocally with the displaced, the impoverished and the ostracized.
This is not usually what we expect from the See of Peter. During the nearly three-decades-long pontificate of the now-sainted John Paul II, the world was transfixed by a personality—theatrical, epic and bold. During the short pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the world watched an anguished Hamlet stumble on the public stage, struggle with a governance machinery rotten at its core and then resign with a noble dignity.
Francis is not a grand political warrior like John Paul II, keen on crushing anti-Catholic ideologies with heroic flare and imposing a stifling regimentation on the home troops with devastating consequences for free and creative thinking. Nor is he a subtle theological magister like Benedict XVI, consolidating a Catholic ethos of nostalgic hue and wrestling with Vatican-generated scandals that eluded his efforts at discipline.
No, Francis is the consummate outsider, uninterested in preserving the status quo—the reforming bishop committed to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the social justice priorities of the Latin American Church and the universal appeal of a gospel not held hostage by church leaders, by shepherds who do not have the “smell of the sheep” about them.
The past year has seen the Franciscan papacy in its most confrontational and prophetic phase yet. The Pope issued an encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si) that found him in easy alliance with Naomi Klein and at odds with his climate-change-denier and chief treasurer, George Cardinal Pell of Australia. The Pope visited the United States and overwhelmed his hosts with his charm, intellectual temerity and pastoral authenticity, choosing to list two Catholic outliers in his quartet of great Americans (Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, along with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The Pope presided—from a non-interfering but engaged distance—over the charged proceedings of the Synod of Bishops gathered in Rome to review Catholic practice and teaching in matters of sexuality and the family, and in doing so he introduced them for the second year running to the hitherto novel idea that they are to speak their minds in the freedom of the Spirit.
The Pope travelled to an active war zone in the heart of the Central Africa Republic to appeal for peace, tolerance and political harmony, and he used the occasion of being in an obscure cathedral town, Bangui, to anticipate the inauguration of the Year of Mercy, the Jubilee Year, thereby attaching special significance to a war-ravaged metropolis by privileging the periphery over the centre.
Francis has no regard for the panoply of office, the trappings of monarchy, the rarefied life of the professional Vatican dweller. But there are plenty who do.
Accustomed to progressing steadily up the ladder of hierarchy—what the Vatican periodically calls the cancer of “clerical careerism”—has been a defining feature of church life for centuries. John Paul II and Benedict XVI both deplored its presence and sought to contain it through occasional Monita or warnings and in strategically placed editorials in the Holy See’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Francis, however, is much more intentional. He has derided clerical ambition and entitlement on a regular basis and in very public settings, listing the vices of ecclesiastical leadership, denouncing bishops who act like the Sanhedrin of Jesus’s time passing easy judgment on others. And he has chosen to lead a life of startling modesty in comparison with many of his vermillion-robed helpers.
But the year of reckoning is nigh. In an annual Christmas address to his Roman Curia, Francis reminded his listeners that “the reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve, since Ecclesia semper reformanda [the church is ever reforming].”
The year ahead will be the making or unmaking of the Franciscan agenda of reform. It is that simple, that stark, that urgent.