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The shadow of Pope Francis casts a silhouette on his armchair as he arrives for the weekly general audience on Sept. 27 at St Peter's Square in The Vatican.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/Getty Images

Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College and a senior fellow of Massey College.

While I was in Rome in October to cover the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality, I had dinner with an old friend, the saucy Vaticanista Robert Mickens. Although he is an admirer of Pope Francis, he confessed to some serious reservations over his style and disposition.

In recent times, Mr. Mickens finds Francis frequently grumpy, offhanded with his staff, and indifferent to the niceties of high liturgy. Certainly, popes have known times of desolation – periods of enervation and depression – as we saw when Pope Paul VI, nearing the end of his life, had to deal with the murder by the Red Brigades of his friend Aldo Moro, the former prime minister of Italy. Paul’s personal pleas for clemency having gone unheard, he preached at the politician’s funeral in the Cathedral of St. John Lateran and upbraided God for, in the words of his biographer Peter Hebblethwaite, “allowing this appalling deed to happen.” John Paul II had to cope with the physical and emotional consequences of an assassination attempt that nearly claimed his life in 1981. And in 2012, Benedict XVI had a butler who absconded with his private papers and then released them to the press, ushering in a series of mishaps that contributed to Benedict’s decision to call it quits as pontiff.

So Francis is not alone when finding himself out of emotional sync with his job. He has had to deal with a recalcitrant Texas bishop, Joseph Strickland of Tyler, who has not only repeatedly criticized the Pope in public but actually accused Francis of “undermining the deposit of faith.” This is a serious and reckless charge – after all, the very job of the pope is to ensure the integrity of the faith – and Bishop Strickland’s provocation forced the Pope’s hand. The Texan was sacked from his diocese.

Not long after, Bishop Strickland’s model and mentor, Cardinal Raymond Burke, found himself purged of his emoluments and privileges. A high-placed Vatican apparatchik, canonist, and devoted fan of ecclesiastical finery – the more exotic, the better – he thinks the church is adrift and has been a rallying point for those discontented with the Bergoglio papacy. Cardinal Burke and Bishop Strickland would find ample evidence of Francis’s alleged infidelity with his Dec. 18 approval of same-sex blessings, though there are no doctrinal, liturgical or canonical changes involved.

In addition to dealing with rebellious prelates, Francis has been despondent over the climate crisis and the failure of governments to take seriously his urgent call for remedial action to save our common home; the failure of his diplomatic efforts to mediate in both the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas wars; to say nothing of the depressing data recently released by the Catholic University of America in Washington that shows that priests who self-identify as progressive have dropped from 70 per cent among those ordained in the late 1960s to five per cent for those ordained in 2020 and later. It is the progressives who support Francis, and in the very seedbed of opposition to his papacy – the United States – those numbers are on a downward slope.

But when Mr. Mickens speaks of Francis’s desolation, he has something else in mind besides being grumpy. Desolation in Jesuit spirituality is counterbalanced by consolation, both of which are movements of the heart. The former, in Francis’s own words, are feelings of “interior unrest and dissatisfaction. Such movements are in fact a challenge to our complacency and an incentive to growth in the spiritual life.” Consolation, by contrast, is “an interior movement that touches our depths. It is not flashy but soft, delicate, like a drop of water on a sponge. Consolation pushes you forward, in service to others, to society, to people.”

If Francis has been in desolation for a time, evidence of his now being in consolation is abundant. In an interview with a Mexican broadcaster on Dec. 13, he robustly asserted his desire to remain Pope and not resign, to continue his demanding schedule – ”they tell me that I am reckless because I feel like doing things and moving about but it is a sign that I am quite well” – and his resolve to put all slights and attacks in perspective.

The new President of Argentina, Javier Milei, has invited Francis to visit his birth country. And Francis is keen on accepting. This is the president who previously called Francis “an imbecile who defends social justice” and “a son-of-a-bitch preaching communism.” Not an ideal specimen of diplomatic politesse. But Francis is unmoved by Mr. Milei’s past intemperate language and opts instead to move forward. It’s another sign that Francis is in it for the long haul. And that is a consolation.

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