Francis' decade as pope called dramatic, dizzying, daring — anything but dull

Pope Francis smiles during an audience with members of Confindustria, the General Confederation of Italian Industry, and members of their families, in the Vatican audience hall Sept. 12, 2022. (OSV News photo/Yara Nardi, Reuters)

(OSV News) — For the biographer of Pope Francis, 10 years into the current papacy, "the church is in a very different place," with "less anger and defensiveness." Commentators add that Pope Francis is a pope "who is not afraid to spark controversy" and are certain he's a "daring" pope "full of surprises."

Austen Ivereigh, author of Francis' biographies "The Great Reformer" and "Wounded Shepherd," told OSV News that "everybody feels" the change Pope Francis has brought to the church in the last decade.

"I think Francis enjoys being pope. It gives him life. He knows that's what he should be doing. So I think he brings to it a kind of a joy, a peace, a freedom, which I think is really important," he said.

What Francis has done, Ivereigh argued, is reconnect the church with grace and with the Holy Spirit.

"So we have a church which is much humbler, much more dependent on grace, and therefore feels different, feels more joyful. And so there's perhaps less anger and defensiveness in the church, I think, as a result."

He said there's been a "shift of focus" in the church. "And I think that shift of focus has been toward the Holy Spirit and also in many ways toward the people."

Pointing to the bishops' Synod on Synodality, the first session of which will convene in October, as a key example of this shift, Ivereigh emphasized that the "people of God are not just being consulted, but are the subjects of the process itself." The drive for synodality in his papacy comes from Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's experience, Ivereigh argued.

"Before he became pope, he was, of course, a Jesuit for many, many years and was also the key player as cardinal archbishop in probably the most synodal event in the modern church, which was the meeting of the Latin American bishops at Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007."

Aparecida was a synodal experience, Francis' biographer added, "in the sense that the bishops arrived in a very divided and perhaps discouraged and in a state of desolation, and two weeks later emerged confident, united with a much clearer vision about how the church needed to evangelize. And he was key to that process."

The synod for him is "structured listening space and in which you're really trying to understand the responses of your own heart to what is being said. And in those responses, you discover where the spirit is at work."

But the Jesuit spirit of discernment for many means a headache for the church.

"He's not afraid to spark controversy," Francis Rocca, Vatican correspondent for The Wall Street Journal told OSV News. "On the unified side, the pope is very popular. He's drawn a lot of people to him. But he has certainly courted controversy and of course many conservatives are distressed," he said.

From restriction of the use of the Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal to synodal discussions on moral teachings, Pope Francis is at the center of criticism for many Catholics, especially in the United States.

"Especially in the area of sexuality, he has obviously been very controversial. It hasn't, as we know, changed really anything. Theologically, it's very subtle. But the message has been very clear that being divorced and remarried is not as grave a situation as it was before," Rocca said.

For John Allen, editor-in-chief of Crux, "the single most controversial decision that Francis has made over the past decade" was "Amoris Laetitia," the encyclical on love in the family, debating the possibility of allowing Communion for the divorced.

"It marked a sort of crossing of the Rubicon," Allen said. "Prior to 2016, it was possible for Catholic conservatives to insist that Pope Francis was simply misunderstood, that he was being spun by a liberal media and by secular public opinion, but that in reality, you know, his heart was in the same place that John Paul and Benedict's had been. After 'Amoris Laetitia,' that became a much more difficult argument for many Catholic conservatives to make. And I think, from that point forward, many Catholic conservatives began becoming outspokenly critical of Francis."

For Allen, that moment "probably crystallized tensions that had already been building, but I think they really burst into their present form at that time."

Rocca added that in the area of moral teaching "in regard to homosexuality, which we've been hearing a lot about, especially these days with the German synod, he hasn't changed the teaching, but he has really emphasized compassion. And that has caused a lot of anxiety for people who think it's very important to uphold the traditional teachings and that the church calls everyone to be chaste."

For Francis' biographer, the restriction on what is popularly called the "traditional Latin Mass" -- the topic currently being debated throughout the church from parish pews to social media posts -- "was the result of a very long consultation of the bishops worldwide."

Ivereigh argued that "what Benedict thought wouldn't happen did happen, which is that this had become a movement that was undermining the unity of the church, that it was opposed to Vatican II in many cases, and that had been caught up with all kinds of ideologies." He added, "Francis didn't suppress the preconciliar Mass. He regulated it."

Allen said he thinks that "in Catholic debate, the Latin Mass is sort of the third rail. Clearly Pope Francis felt that something enormously important was at stake because he was willing to do that despite knowing that it was going to generate enormous criticism."

Pope Francis also was one who brought hope that he would bring visible change to the church's response to the abuse crisis.

For his biographer, "just looking at the number of regulations that have been introduced, the way bishops are now held accountable in the way that they weren't" proves he has done a lot to clean up the church. “However, there is still much to be done," he said.

"And the reason that there's still much to be done is that the institution remains in many ways geared toward the protection of the innocence of the priest. And I think, yes, he's made mistakes," Ivereigh continued. "I think, frankly, it's impossible not to make mistakes in this area because you're trying to balance two things. You're trying to protect, defend the principle of innocence until proven guilty. But at the same time, you have to start by believing victims and giving them credibility."

For Rocca, it's Pope Benedict that "remains the high water mark for rigor and zeal in disciplining priests who abuse." But it's also true, Rocca argued, "that Francis, after some very, very grave missteps with regard to Chile, gave a new emphasis and promulgated some legislation, had a big global meeting and drew attention to the topic."

Allen added that "the verdict on Pope Francis in the sex abuse crisis is that it is a mixed bag.

"It is fair to say that although Pope Francis has said that there should be accountability not just for the crime, but for the cover up -- that is, bishops and superiors who covered up abuse should be held accountable -- there are almost no cases of that actually happening," he said. "There is legislation on the books now, thanks to Pope Francis, but it really has not been used in any meaningful way. And so I think a lot of people would give him a grade of 'incomplete.'"

The pope's biographer blamed slow action in some areas on clericalism -- in the pope's own words, the "ugly perversion" that Francis has tried to fight from day one of his papacy.

"From the very beginning of his pontificate, he has declared war on clericalism in a way that I think has been very uncomfortable for a lot of people," Ivereigh said.

"I think when clericalism is very deep seated, then it's a form of corruption. And in general, corrupt people do not change unless they are forced to, unless there is some major crisis or calamity," Ivereigh added.

Some of the changes in this area, Rocca said, include the appointment of "a number of women to relatively high positions in the Vatican. The synod is no longer the Synod of Bishops. It's called the Synod. He has sent a message that the laity should have a bigger voice with respect to bishops and to clergy."

What the pope came to realize, Ivereigh said, "was that the only way we can move on from being a clerical church is when we have a church in which the people of God are taking part in the life of the church, you know, as missionary disciples in which we are all responsible and we can all take part in the decision-making processes of the church, that we are going to move on from this."

Rocca added that as much as the pope "has probably played down the authority of bishops and priests with respect to laypeople," on the other hand, "he certainly is not shy about using his own power as pope. So we have a perhaps more powerful pope, a more commanding pope than we did in the previous pontificate. So you could look at it both ways."

For Rocca, the 86-year-old pontiff celebrating 10 years of papacy is "unstoppable."

"I mean, it's quite astonishing to see how busy he is, how many meetings he has in a day, how many speeches, how many trips he takes."

Allen added that "the past decade has been dramatic, dizzying, daring, divisive. In fact, I think the only word that starts with 'D' that you can't use is the word 'dull,' because the only thing it hasn't been is boring."

"Pope Francis is a one of those once in a generation leaders who comes into office with an extremely strong sense of where he wants to take the church. And his vision is a dramatic change from what had come before. And he is not intimidated by opposition. And so he has charted a bold new course," Allen argued.

Asked what's next for the pope he said, "I wish I knew. If I have one certainty about Pope Francis after covering him for 10 years, it is that you never know what this guy is going to do next."



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