“In the eleventh year of my pontificate...”
The 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy is now in the history books. The Catholic Church’s first-ever Jesuit and New World pope has completed a dynamic decade on the Chair of Peter, although he’s not done that by just sitting around at the Vatican. Francis has completed 40 international journeys (to 59 different countries), as well as 35 trips outside Rome to other places in Italy. Within the Eternal City itself, he’s made several parish visits and gone to the Basilica of St. Mary Major more than 100 times to pray before the beloved icon of Mary, “Salus Populi Romani.” Without a doubt, the 86-year-old pope has been slowed by age and declining health, but he has shown an impressive determination to keep up his busy schedule of global bridge-building and evangelization.
And when he’s not been traveling, he’s been busy trying to achieve nothing less than a full-scale cultural and ministerial change at the Vatican, while helping the global Church emerge (without being crushed) from its steadily collapsing Eurocentric paradigm and give birth to a truly global and newly inculturated Catholicism. His not-always-clearly-defined project of making “synodality” the driving engine of these efforts and a constitutive part of the Church’s life and decision-making process has been one of the hallmarks of his pontificate.
A dynamic ten years? No doubt about it. But there have been mixed reactions from the clergy (including bishops and cardinals), as well as the people in the pews. It’s been like a dream-come-true for many Catholics who have long believed their Church needs to change in order to be more faithful to the Gospel, engage more effectively with modern society and other faiths, and simply be more relevant to people of today. But these same ten years have been a complete nightmare for those who believe their Church must resist change in order to remain faithful to Catholic doctrine, provide unambiguous and uncompromising moral strictures for the salvation of its members and stand apart from a secular society run amuck.
Over the next twelve months, whenever Pope Francis issues a document he’ll sign it with words to this effect: “Given in the eleventh year of my pontificate.” The question many people are asking is what, exactly, this eleventh year is likely to bring? Some fear—and others sincerely hope—that it will prove to be the pontificate’s proverbial eleventh hour; that is, its conclusion. One of the main reasons for these two different sentiments is the synodal process, which the pope launched in autumn 2021. This series of widespread local and regional consultations with Catholics (and, in many parts of the world, even non-Catholics) on the current state of the Church and its future has been seen by many as akin to throwing open the doors for debating anything and everything.
The next step in this synodal process will take place this coming October in Rome when the Synod of Bishops (that is still the Synod’s official name—for now) holds the first of two assemblies over the course of 24 months to further discuss the issues and ideas that emerged during the consultations. But bishops will not be the only ones participating in those assemblies. There will also be priests, religious sisters and brothers and other lay people. It’s not clear at this point whether those who are not clerics will be, like the bishops, full members or just invited guests (as observers and experts). The answer to that crucial question will determine whether they will be able to vote on proposals the body surfaces. Pope Francis recently said that all “members”—even if they are not bishops—will be allowed to do so.
Even though the Jesuit pope has completely overhauled the dynamics and procedures of the Synod, this permanent institution that Paul VI established in 1965 at the end of the Second Vatican Council remains a mere consultative body. The current pope has certainly made it a chamber of much more honest and open debate, but the Synod has no deliberative powers unless its president, the Roman Pontiff, grants it such. No pope has ever done that. And so far, Francis has shown no signs that he’s ready to do so. Quite the contrary. He’s even rejected proposals that were approved by a vast majority of Synod members (like the appeal for married priests in 2019 at the assembly on the Amazon). So, all eyes will be on Rome this October to see what develops. It is possible, of course, that the pope will instruct the assembly to refrain from drafting concrete proposals until the second assembly in October 2024.
As we look ahead, there is also the question of how much longer Francis will be pope. The possibility of yet another papal resignation continues to hang over his pontificate. This means that over the next months, Vatican-watchers and others interested in the fate of the Catholic Church will be keeping a close eye on the pope for any further signs of declining health. Shortly after his election, Francis said Benedict XVI was right to resign in 2013 because of diminished energies. He said at the time that papal resignations were now “something normal.” But this past February he seemed to flip-flop, saying popes should serve for life. Then, just a week ago, he put the possibility of resigning back on the table, admitting that he'd likely step down, too, if he were to experience “a fatigue” that prohibited him “from seeing things clearly.” Only one thing is clear right now, the eleventh year of this pontificate will be as interesting as it is unpredictable.
Robert Mickens is the Rome-based English editor of "La Croix International", the online Catholic journal.