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The Holy Father’s eleventh anniversary (March 19) fell at a difficult moment, with a global controversy over his Ukrainian “white flag” remarks, in which he said that Ukraine should negotiate an end to the war with Russia. It is regrettably fitting, as the eleventh year of the pontificate has been a bumpy one for Pope Francis. A year ago it was expected, after the deaths of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, that the road would be more open for Pope Francis to follow his program. It didn’t go quite that smoothly. 

Even amongst the most fervent supporters of Pope Francis, there is disquiet. Mike Lewis of Where Peter Is wrote in December that “it is time to begin again . . . because many Catholics simply don’t get Pope Francis.” Massimo Faggioli at Commonweal lamented that “there seems to be no prelate at the Vatican who can speak to the Germans on the same theological level that Cardinal Ratzinger or Cardinal Mueller did” and wondered if “a Vatican with a Latin American leadership can mediate the differences between Germany and Africa.” Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter confessed that “our wonderful pope is horribly wrong about Ukraine.”

Thus the eleventh year has been difficult. Herewith eleven bumps in the road from March 2023 to March 2024.

1. Nicaragua

In March 2023, the Ortega regime in Nicaragua expelled the papal nuncio—a dramatic sign of increasing persecution of the Church. This act was of a piece with the regime's imprisonment of bishops and priests, its expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity, and its campaign of legal penalties against Church institutions. Yet the effective breaking off of diplomatic relations highlighted how Vatican foreign policy has no significant effect in Latin America, whether in Nicaragua, Venezuela, or even Argentina. 

In January 2024, it was considered a victory for Holy See diplomacy when Nicaraguan Bishops Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa and Isidoro del Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna, along with various priests, were released from prisons and exiled to Rome. But their banishment from their country and distance from their flocks is only a relative improvement to the still more terrible options at home.

2. Argentina

Pope Francis has always paid careful attention to politics in his home country, often citing the political situation as a reason for why he has never returned for a visit as pope. Last December, Javier Milei won a thumping victory for president, after a campaign in which he referred to the Holy Father in a most disrespectful, rude, and vulgar way. In living memory, no democratic head of state has ever spoken of the pope in such a manner, let alone in his home country. 

While Argentinians did not seem too bothered by it, the “slum priests” associated with the vision of Pope Francis in Argentina organized several events, before and after the election, to register their opposition to Milei.

After the election the Holy Father was gracious and Milei adopted a friendly tone, even giving Pope Francis a warm embrace in Rome and inviting him to visit Argentina. Still, the hostility of his campaign rhetoric was shocking for Catholics this past year.

3. Germany

The German “Synodal Path” continued to defiantly grind along, paying little head to warnings, pleadings, and admonitions from Rome. Minor progress came last month when a vote on establishing a permanent synodal council for Germany was postponed. This year several dialogue sessions are planned between German and Roman officials. Germany is a constant reminder of how this has been a pontificate of multiplying divisions.

4. Russian Imperialism 

In August Pope Francis, addressing a group of Russian youth, encouraged them to be proud of “great mother Russia.” He mentioned the imperial figures of Catherine the Great and Peter the Great. Given his frequent condemnations of imperialism and colonialism elsewhere, this paean to the Russian empire was noteworthy.

The people subjugated by Russian power—Lithuanians, Poles, Ukrainians—were surprised and hurt by the papal remarks, wondering if a certain admiration for Russian imperialism was animating the Holy Father’s approach to the war against Ukraine.

5. Genghis Khan

Soon after the Russian empire remarks, Pope Francis praised the “Pax Mongolia” of Genghis Khan on a visit to Ulaanbaatar, and claimed that the empire was a model of religious freedom. His remarks were another sympathetic reading of imperial history. The trip to Mongolia was a first for the papacy, as was the positive estimation of an empire that is usually associated with conquest, brutality, rape, and pillage. It’s customary for popes to find something praiseworthy in the history of any country they visit. Francis certainly made that effort amongst the heirs to the Mongols.

6. Synod on Synodality

The synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church is the flagship initiative of Pope Francis, inviting Catholics to find a “new way of being Church,” as Cardinal Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio in Washington, puts it. The mammoth synod process had various twists and turns throughout 2023, and Pope Francis extended the process for another year. It was supposed to culminate in another synodal assembly that will meet in Rome for a month this October. Then last week he extended the synodal process into 2025 and perhaps beyond. 

A bureaucratic enterprise that large inevitably gives great authority to the synod managers. That was clear in the last days of the synod, when the hundreds of delegates were given a forty-page text (in Italian only). More than a thousand amendments were submitted, to be considered by synod managers in an all-night session before being voted on the next day. That process did not seem to comport with the Holy Father’s vision of “the Holy Spirit as the protagonist” of the synod.

7. Fr. Marko Rupnik, olim Jesuit

The sordid priestly abuse scandal of Fr. Marko Rupnik produced disheartening developments all year. It reached a low point during the synodal assembly itself, when news broke that, after being expelled from the Jesuits, Fr. Rupnik had been accepted in good standing by his home diocese in Slovenia. 

The news caused such wide consternation amongst the synod members that Pope Francis himself came to address the entire assembly that afternoon. It was a surreal moment. Without a word about the Rupnik scandal, the Holy Father excoriated the traditional clothing choices of seminarians. No one in the hall quite knew what to make of the urgency of that issue while headlines around the world were leading with Rupnik.

8. Laudate Deum

Pope Francis published Laudate Deum, an apostolic exhortation “sequel” to his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, to coincide with the synodal assembly. It was a most unusual papal document, for it pronounced on specific scientific and policy questions, and served as a sort of NGO working document for the upcoming climate conference in Dubai. 

The text had little resonance. Partly because it was not principally a religious text but a political one, and partly because Pope Francis intended to lobby for it personally in Dubai, but was unable to make the trip due to health reasons.

9. Cardinal Raymond Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke has not been shy about his criticisms of the pontificate. Still, it was a shock in curial Rome that Pope Francis chose to cut off his stipend (really a pension, as Burke is retired) and remove his subsidized apartment. It seemed rather beneath the dignity of the papal office. And of course it invites future comparison when other cardinals maintain their pensions and apartments.

10. Synodality Secretly Undermined

The synodal process grinds on, but it is not obvious that it retains any credibility. The publication of Fiducia Supplicans in December on blessings for irregular and same-sex couples revealed that senior curial officials were working secretly behind the synod’s back. While the synod decided not to take up the topic, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith was moving ahead with clandestine haste, supported by Pope Francis. The synodal process was thus completely irrelevant on an issue that has rocked the Church. Why invest further energy in it?

After Fiducia, the question is not what the synodal process will decide this year. The question is: Does it even matter?

11. Coptic Orthodox Rejection

A highlight of the past year was the May visit to Rome of Pope Tawadros, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, one of the ancient Orthodox Churches. At that meeting, Pope Francis announced that he would recognize the Coptic Orthodox decision to “canonize” the twenty-one martyrs of Libya, beheaded in 2015 at the hands of ISIS. It was an imaginative ecumenical decision.

Less than a year later, the Coptic Orthodox have suspended all dialogue with the Catholic Church because of the Holy Father’s “change of position” on homosexuality, as they term it. Fiducia has damaged Christian unity.

Finally, the days leading up to the anniversary were marked by the “white flag” interview, causing outrage in suffering Ukraine. It was a sort of summary of the eleventh year. After a year of disruptions, will the year ahead prove more tranquil?

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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Image by Edgar Jiménez licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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