A few days ago, Pope Francis celebrated yet another milestone in his norm-shattering life. Despite his pandemic-defying jaunts to far-off countries like Iraq and Slovakia, his recent intestinal surgery and the weight of history on his stooping shoulders, he made it to a ripe old age only one other pope, his predecessor, had reached before retiring, 85. Just one other pontiff lived longer, but that was a century ago.
Francis is a gung-ho pontiff determined to enact reforms he feels strongly are needed to keep the Catholic Church on a fair and level playing field.
He’s engaged in an unprecedented discussion with rank-and-file Catholics on making the church more attuned to the laity. A fierce advocate for immigrants, his drive to make the world a more environmentally sustainable, economically just and fraternally friendly place shows no signs of slowing down.
The ever plugging-away pontiff feels a special allegiance to the poor with whom he shares a spiritual kinship having come himself from a lower-middle-class family of Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires. Somehow, the boy who was bookworm smart, who loved to tango with girls and visit with his pals their favorite neighborhood bar where there was not only music, but a popular pool table. This is how Austen Ivereigh described it in his book, “The Great Reformer.” Then came Francis calling to become a Jesuit priest during the stormy Peron era in Argentina and eventually the spiritual leader of more than a billion Catholics worldwide.
These trying days Francis is beset by problems at home and abroad and facing a relentless campaign of opposition from the conservative Catholic right to which he responds, according to The New York Times with the papal equivalent of “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
After spending the first eight years of his papacy gently nudging Catholic hierarchs to embrace financial prudence and responsible governance, Francis got tough this year, and appears poised to keep a clenched fist when his loving hand isn’t waving goodbye from the stairway to another Alitalia flight to somewhere that desperately needs and wants his presence.
Here are some facts flowing from his hectic leading role since his last birthday. In an effort to rein in the Vatican’s 50-million-euro ($57 million) budget deficit, Francis ordered a 10% pay cut for cardinals and slashed salaries for Vatican employees. To fight corruption, he imposed a 40-euro ($45) gift cap for Holy See personnel. He’s allowing cardinals and bishops to be criminally prosecuted by the Vatican’s lay-led tribunal, setting the stage for the high-profile trial underway of his onetime close adviser, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, on finance-related charges.
If truth be known, Francis hasn’t made many new friends outside the Vatican since approving a 2019 law outlining how cardinals and bishops could be investigated for sex abuse cover-up. Francis also approved term limits for leaders of lay Catholic movements to try to curb their abuses of power as well, resulting in the forced removal of influential church leaders. Recently he accepted the resignation of the Paris archbishop after a media storm alleging personal and governance improprieties.
Despite Francis’ tough line, he still got a round of birthday applause from Holy See cardinals, bishops and priests who joined him for an Advent meditation.
The pontiff really riled his critics this past year with his July decision to reverse his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and reimpose restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass.
Francis said he needed to take action because Benedict’s 2007 decision to allow freer celebration of the old rite had divided the church and that division was being exploited by conservatives.
“Some wanted me dead,” Francis said of his critics.
Speaking with his fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September, Francis confided that he knew his 10-day hospital stay in July for surgery to remove 33 centimeters of his large intestine had sparked momentum among conservative Catholics eager for a new pope.
“I know there were even meetings among priests who thought the pope was in worse shape than what was being said,” he told the Jesuits, in comments later published in the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica. “They were preparing the conclave.”
The sinister scuttlebutt surrounding the likelihood of his dying was like Mark Twain once said about a similar prognosis, “news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.” The Argentine Jesuit made it clear after his July surgery that resigning “didn’t even cross my mind.”
That is welcome news to Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the top women at the Vatican whom Francis tapped to help organize the two-year consultation process of Catholics around the globe that will end with a meeting of bishops, known as a synod. She knows well what the pope is up against as he tries to remake the church into a less clerical, more laity-focused global organization.
“It’s a call to change,” she said recently. “And we can say it’s not an easy path.”
Yet for this indefatigable pontiff, you might say it’s a piece of holy cake.
Besides an inveterate blogger, Tom Madden is an author of countless published articles and five books, including his latest, WORDSHINE MAN, available in January on Amazon. He is the founder and CEO of TransMedia Group, an award-winning public relations firm serving clients worldwide since 1981 and has conducted remarkably successful media campaigns and crisis management for America’s largest companies and organizations.