Five years a pope: Francis’ focus has been on outreach

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IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope just a few days after telling the
College of Cardinals that the Catholic Church faced a clear choice between being
a church that “goes out” or a church focused on its internal affairs.

After the cardinal from
Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected March 13, 2013, and chose the name
Francis, he made “go out,” “periphery” and “throwaway
culture” standard phrases in the papal vocabulary.

Catholics have a wide variety
of opinions about how Pope Francis is exercising the papal ministry, and many
of his comments — both in informal news conferences and in formal documents —
have stirred controversy. But, as he wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,”
the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate: “I prefer
a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the
streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from
clinging to its own security.”

But there are two areas of
internal church affairs that he recognized needed immediate attention: the
reform of the Roman Curia and the full protection of children and vulnerable
adults from clerical sexual abuse.

The organizational reform of
the Curia has been taking place in stages, but Pope Francis has insisted that
the real reform is a matter of changing hearts and embracing service.

On the issue of abuse, nine
months into his pontificate, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission
for Child Protection to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical sexual
abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the survivors.

While Pope Francis has emphatically
proclaimed “zero tolerance” for abusers and recently said covering up
abuse “is itself an abuse,” as his fifth anniversary approached
serious questions arose about how he handled accusations that Chilean Bishop
Juan Barros, who was a priest at the time, covered up allegations of abuse
against his mentor.

The new scandal threatened to
undermine the widespread popularity of Pope Francis and his efforts to set the
Catholic Church on a new course.

For Pope Francis, that new
course involves evangelization first of all.

“Evangelizing presupposes
a desire in the church to come out of herself,” he had told the cardinals
just days before the conclave that elected him. “The church is called to
come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but
also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of
ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all

Mercy is the first thing the
Catholic Church is called to bring to those peripheries, he says.

Although in 2013 he told
reporters he would not be traveling as much as his predecessors, Pope Francis
has continued their practice of literally “going out,” making 22
trips outside of Italy and visiting 32 nations.

But he also regularly visits
the peripheries of Rome, both its poor suburbs and its hospitals,
rehabilitation centers, prisons and facilities for migrants and refugees.

His desire to reach out has
inspired innovations that were noteworthy at the beginning of the papacy, but
now seem to be a natural part of a pope’s day. For example, after beginning
with Vatican gardeners and garbage collectors, the pope continues to invite a
small group of Catholics to join him most weekday mornings for Mass in the
chapel of his residence.

The residence, the Domus
Sanctae Marthae, is a guesthouse built by St. John Paul II with the intention
of providing decent housing for cardinals when they would enter a conclave to
elect a new pope. Pope Francis decided after the 2013 conclave to stay there
and not move into the more isolated papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

On Holy Thursday each year, he
has celebrated Mass at a prison, care facility or refugee center and washed the
feet of patients, inmates or immigrants, both men and women, Catholics and
members of other faiths. He also ordered the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship
and the Sacraments to clarify that the feet of both women and men can be washed
at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

During the 2015-16 Year of
Mercy, he made a visit one Friday a month to people in particular need,
including those at a school for the blind, a neonatal intensive care unit, a
community of recovering alcoholics, a children’s group home and a community for
women rescued from traffickers who forced them into prostitution. Once the Year
of Mercy ended, the pope continued the visits, although not always every month.

In September 2015 as waves of
migrants and refugees were struggling and dying to reach Europe, Pope Francis
asked every parish and religious community in Europe to consider offering
hospitality to one family. The Vatican offered apartments and support to a
family from Syria and a family from Eritrea. Then, seven months later, Pope
Francis visited a refugee center on the island of Lesbos, Greece, and brought
12 refugees back to Rome on the plane with him.

Less than three months into
his pontificate, he began denouncing the “throwaway culture” as one
where money and power were the ultimate values and anything or anyone that did
not advance money or power were disposable: “Human life, the person are no
longer seen as primary values to be respected and protected, especially if they
are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like an unborn child — or
are no longer useful — like an old person,” the pope said at a general

In the first three years of
his papacy, he published three major documents: “Evangelii Gaudium” (The
Joy of the Gospel); “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” on
the environment; and “‘Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love), on Love in the
Family,” his reflections on the discussions of the Synod of Bishops in
2014 and 2015.

People skeptical about the
scientific proof that human activity is contributing to climate change objected
to parts of “Laudato Si’,” but the criticism was muted compared to
reactions to Pope Francis’ document on the family, especially regarding
ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that,
under some conditions, some of those Catholics could return to the sacraments.

The strongest criticism came
from U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke and three other cardinals, who sent to the
pope and then publicly released in November 2016 a formal, critical set of
questions, known as “dubia,” insisting that allowing those Catholics
to receive the sacraments amounted to changing fundamental church teaching
about marriage, sexuality and the nature of the sacraments.

Pope Francis has not
responded to the cardinals, two of whom have since died. But in December, the
Vatican posted on its website the guidelines for interpreting “Amoris Laetitia”
developed by a group of Argentine bishops, as well as Pope Francis’ letter to
them describing the guidelines as “authentic magisterium.”

The guidelines by bishops in
the Buenos Aires region said the path of discernment proposed by Pope Francis
for divorced and civilly remarried couples “does not necessarily end in
the sacraments” but, in some situations, after a thorough process of
discernment, the pope’s exhortation “opens the possibility” to
reception of the sacraments.

In the document and throughout
his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized God’s mercy and the power of the
sacraments to spur conversion and nourish Christians as they try to progress in

Like all popes, Pope Francis
frequently urges Catholics to go to confession, telling them it is not a
“torture chamber.” And he repeatedly gives priests blunt advice about
being welcoming and merciful to those who approach the confessional.

Like St. John Paul did each
Lent, Pope Francis hears confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica. But, he surprised
even his closest aides beginning in 2014 when, instead of going to the confessional
to welcome the first penitent, he turned and went to confession himself.

He also has surprised people
by being completely honest about his age. In April 2017, when he was still 80
years old, he told Italian young people that while they are preparing for the
future, “at my age we are preparing to go.” The young people present
objected loudly. “No?” the pope responded, “Who can guarantee
life? No one.”

From the beginning of his
papacy, Pope Francis has expressed love and admiration for retired Pope Benedict
XVI. Returning from South Korea in 2014, he said Pope Benedict’s honest,
“yet also humble and courageous” gesture of resigning cleared a path
for later popes to do the same.

“You can ask me: ‘What
if one day you don’t feel prepared to go on?'” he told the reporters
traveling with him. “I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray
hard over it, but I would do the same thing. He (Pope Benedict) opened a door
which is institutional, not exceptional.”

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