On Friday, Pope Francis turned 85, a great achievement made all the more extraordinary by the coronavirus epidemic, his midsummer intestinal surgery, and the weight of history: His predecessor retired at this age, and Leo XIII, who lived over a century ago, was the last pope to do so.
Despite this, Francis is still going strong, having just returned from a quick tour to Cyprus and Greece, following his pandemic-defying trips to Iraq, Slovakia, and Hungary earlier this year. He’s kicked off an unprecedented two-year consultation with lay Catholics on how to make the church more laity-friendly, and he shows no signs of slowing down in his quest to make the post-COVID world a more environmentally sustainable, economically just, and fraternal place where the poor are prioritized.
One of Francis’ top Jesuit communications gurus, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, stated, “I sense a lot of enthusiasm.” “What we’re seeing is the natural outcome of the seeds he’s sowed,” says the narrator.
But Francis is burdened with challenges at home and abroad, and the hardline Catholic right has waged a prolonged campaign against him. He’s answered by saying, “No more Mr. Nice Guy,” in papal terms.
After gently urging Catholic hierarchs to adopt financial restraint and good administration for the first eight years of his pontificate, Francis turned harsh this year, and he looks set to maintain it that way.
In an effort to close the Vatican’s 50-million-euro ($57 million) budget imbalance, Francis has ordered a 10% salary cut for all cardinals and decreased salaries for Vatican staff to a lesser extent since his birthday. To combat corruption, Francis set a gift limit of 40 euros ($45) for Holy See officials. He introduced a statute permitting cardinals and bishops to be legally tried by the Vatican’s lay-led tribunal, laying the ground for Cardinal Angelo Becciu’s high-profile trial on finance-related accusations, which is currently underway.
He hasn’t made many new acquaintances outside of the Vatican, either. Following the approval of a 2019 law describing how cardinals and bishops may be investigated for sex abuse cover-up, over a dozen Polish episcopal heads have resigned in the last year. To try to restrain abuses of power, Francis established term limits for leaders of lay Catholic groups, culminating in the forced departure of powerful church officials. Following a media storm claiming governance and personal improprieties, Francis just accepted the resignation of the Paris archbishop.
“In the last year, Pope Francis has hastened his reform efforts by giving the church’s canon law on finances genuine fangs,” according to the Rev. Robert Gahl, head of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross’s Program of Church Management.
“While celebrating the pope’s birthday, Vatican watchers 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, adding that a cultural shift is required in addition to Francis’ new rules.
Despite his stern stance, Francis received a round of enthusiastic applause from Holy See cardinals, bishops, and priests who joined him for an Advent meditation on Friday morning.
But it was Francis’ July decision to contradict his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and reimpose limits on conducting the ancient Latin Mass that enraged his adversaries. Benedict’s 2007 decision to allow freer celebration of the traditional rite has split the church and been abused by conservatives, according to Francis.
Francis stated of his opponents, “Some wished me dead.”
Francis told his fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September that 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 had sparked momentum among conservative Catholics eager for a new pope.
In comments later published in the Vatican-approved Jesuit publication La Civilta Cattolica, he informed the Jesuits, “I know there were even meetings among priests who believed the pope was in worse health than what was being claimed.” “They were getting ready for the conclave.”
That may not have been the case, but if history is any indication, the priests would have been wise to at least address the possibility.
Benedict, who was 85 at the time of his resignation in February 2013, became the first pope in 600 years to stand down, opening the path for Francis’ election. Benedict stated he didn’t have the strength to continue even though he was in good condition at the time.
John Paul II died at the age of 84, and John Paul I died at the age of 65, after only 33 days on the job. With the exception of Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903 at the age of 93, all 20th-century popes died in their early 80s or younger.
Francis projected a two- or three-year papacy early on in his pontificate, and thanked Benedict with “opening the door” to future papal retirements.
However, after his July surgery, the Argentine Jesuit made it plain that resignation “didn’t even cross my mind.”
Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the Vatican’s most powerful women, is overjoyed by the news. Francis asked her to assist coordinate the two-year consultation process of Catholics all over the world, which will culminate in a synod of bishops. She understands the difficulties the pope has as he attempts to transform the church into a less clerical, more lay-focused organization.
She said at a conference this week, “It’s a call to change.” “And it’s safe to say it’s not an easy road.”