Pope at 85: Mr. Nice Guy is over, while the reform is making great strides
ROME – Pope Francis is celebrating his 85th birthday on Friday, an even more remarkable milestone given the coronavirus pandemic, his summer bowel surgery and the weight of history: his predecessor retired at this age and the last pope to have lived longer was Leo XIII over a century ago.
Still, Francis is going strong, recently concluding a whirlwind trip to Cyprus and Greece after his pandemic escapades this year in Iraq, Slovakia and Hungary. He has set in motion an unprecedented two-year consultation with grassroots Catholics to make the church more lay-friendly, and shows no signs of slowing down in his campaign to make the post-COVID world a more secular environment. sustainable, economically just and fraternal place where the poor come first.
“I see a lot of energy,” said Reverend Antonio Spadaro, one of Francis’s trusted Jesuit communication gurus. “What we see is the natural expression, the fruit of the seeds he sowed.”
But Francis is also beset by problems at home and abroad and faces a sustained campaign of opposition from the conservative Catholic right. But Francis responded with the papal equivalent of “more of Mr. Nice Guy”.
After spending the first eight years of his pontificate gently pushing Catholic hierarchs to embrace financial prudence and responsible governance, Francis has grown tough and seems ready to keep it that way.
Since his last birthday, Francis has ordered a 10% pay cut for cardinals at all levels and slashed the salaries of Vatican employees to a lesser extent, with the aim of containing the budget deficit of 50 million euros ($ 57 million) from the Vatican. To fight corruption, he imposed a gift cap of 40 euros ($ 45) on Holy See staff. He passed a law allowing cardinals and bishops to be criminally prosecuted by the Vatican tribunal run by non-lawyers, paving the way for the ongoing high-profile trial of his former close advisor, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, on charges related to finance.
Outside of the Vatican, he didn’t make many new friends either. After approving a 2019 law outlining how cardinals and bishops could be investigated for cover-up sexual abuse, last year nearly a dozen Polish episcopal heads were deposed. Francis also approved term limits for leaders of secular Catholic movements in an attempt to curb their abuse of power, resulting in the forced removal of influential church leaders. He recently accepted the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris after a media storm alleging governance and personal irregularities.
“While celebrating his birthday, Vatican observers are also looking for more concrete signs of compliance regarding the Pope’s new rules, especially from those who report directly to him within the Vatican,” he said. in an email, noting that a culture change is needed. alongside Francis’ new rules and regulations.
But if there was anything Francis did last year that annoyed his critics, it was his July decision to overthrow his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and reimpose restrictions on the celebration of the old mass in Latin. Francis said he had to take action because Benedict’s decision in 2007 to allow a freer celebration of the old rite had divided the church and had been exploited by conservatives.
“Some wanted me dead,” Francis said of his critics.
Speaking to fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September, Francis said he knew his 10-day hospital stay in July for surgery to remove 33 centimeters (about 13 inches) of his large intestine had sparked momentum among conservative Catholics eager for a new pope.
“I know there were even meetings between priests who thought the Pope was in worse shape than what was being said,” he told the Jesuits, in comments that were later published in the Jesuit journal approved by the Vatican La Civilta Cattolica. “They were preparing for the conclave.
It might not have been, but if history was any guide, these priests might not have been wrong in at least discussing the prospect.
Benedict was 85 when he resigned in February 2013, becoming the first pope to resign in 600 years and paving the way for Francis to be elected. While enjoying solid health at the time, Benedict said he just didn’t have the strength to continue.
Before him, John Paul II died at 84 and John Paul I at 65 after only 33 days of work. In fact, all of the twentieth-century popes died in the early 1980s or younger, with the exception of Pope Leo XIII, who was 93 when he died in 1903.
Early in his pontificate, Francis predicted a short papacy of two or three years and credited Benedict with “opening the door” to future papal retreats.
But the Argentine Jesuit made it clear after his surgery in July that the resignation “hasn’t even crossed my mind.”
This is good news for Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the most important women in the Vatican. Francis asked her to help organize the two-year consultation process with Catholics around the world, known as the Synod. She is well aware of what the Pope faces as he tries to remake the church as a less clerical and more lay-oriented institution.
“It’s a call for change,” she said at a conference this week. “And we can say that it is not an easy path.”