Whenever Pope Francis visits prisons, during his whirlwind trips to the world’s peripheries or at a nearby jailhouse in Rome, he always tells inmates that he, too, could have ended up behind bars: “Why you and not me?” he asks.
That humble empathy and the ease with which he walks in others’ shoes has won Francis admirers around the globe and confirmed his place as a consummate champion of the poor and disenfranchised.
But as he marks the fifth anniversary of his election Tuesday and looks ahead to an already troubled 2018, Francis faces criticism for both the merciful causes he has embraced and the ones he has neglected. With women and sex abuse topping the latter list, a consensus view is forming that history’s first Latin American pope is perhaps a victim of unrealistic expectations and his own culture.
Nevertheless, Francis’ first five years have been a dizzying introduction to a new kind of pope, one who prizes straight talk over theology and mercy over morals — all for the sake of making the Church a more welcoming place for those who have felt excluded.
“I think he’s fantastic, very human, very simple,” Marina Borges Martinez, a 77-year-old retiree, said as she headed into evening Mass at a church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. “I think he’s managed to bring more people into the church with the way he is.”
Many point to his now famous “Who am I to judge?” comment about a gay priest as the turning point that disaffected Catholics had longed for and were unsure they would ever see.
Others hold out Francis’ cautious opening to allowing Catholics who remarry outside the church to receive Communion as his single most revolutionary step. It was contained in a footnote to his 2016 document “The Joy of Love.”
“I have met people who told me they returned to the Catholic faith because of this pope,” Ugandan Archbishop John Baptist Odama, who heads the local conference of Catholic bishops, said.
“Simple as he may be, he has passed a very powerful message about our God who loves everybody and who wants the salvation of everyone.”
Another area in which Francis has sought change extends into global politics, with his demand for governments and individuals to treat migrants as brothers and sisters in need, not as threats to society’s wellbeing and security.
After a visit to a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece, Francis brought a dozen Syrian Muslim refugees home with him on the papal plane. The Vatican has turned over three apartments to refugee families. Two African migrants recently joined the Vatican athletics team.
His call has gone largely unanswered in much of Europe and the United States, though, where opposing immigration has become a tool in political campaigns. Italians in the pope’s backyard voted overwhelmingly this month for parties that have promised to crack down on migration, including with forced expulsions.
The Pew Research Center found that while Francis still enjoys a consistently high 84 per centfavourability ratings among U.S. Catholics, an increasing number on the political right believe him to be “too liberal” and naive. Despite all the talk of “the Francis effect” bringing Catholics back to church, Pew found no evidence of a rise in self-proclaimed Catholics or Mass-goers.
Whether he ultimately will be remembered as a unifying or divisive figure, the world has gotten to know the man formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina who emerged on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica as pope on March 13, 2013, and quipped that his brother cardinals had to search to the “end of the Earth” to find a new leader.
There have been magical moments: When Francis wept hearing the life story of an Albanian priest who was tortured during communist rule, and later made the clergyman a cardinal. When his whispery voice weakened as he met with Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees and told them, “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”
But not all are pleased.
When Francis created room for remarried Catholics to receive Communion, a few dozen traditionalist academics and clergy accused him of heresy. Four of his cardinals formally asked for clarification. Conservatives in the U.S. and Europe wrung their hands trying to square how Christ’s vicar on Earth could seemingly condone adultery under the guise of mercy.
“At the end of the day, ‘The Joy of Love’ is the result of a new paradigm that Pope Francis is bringing forward,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, said. “Probably the difficulty that exists in the church is due to this change of attitude that the pope is asking for.”
One cause Francis is accused of neglecting reared its head last week. A coalition of Catholic women gathered at Francis’ own Jesuit headquarters in Rome to demand he provide women with a voice and a place at the decision-making table in the Catholic Church.
“Women’s right to equality arises organically from divine justice. It does not and should not depend on ad hoc papal benevolence or magnaminity,” former Irish President Mary McAleese said.
To be fair, Francis appointed a study commission on ordaining women deacons. He has named a woman to head the Vatican City’s biggest cash cow, the Vatican Museums. He empowered ordinary priests, not just bishops, to absolve women who have had abortions and put Mary Magdalene on par with the male apostles by declaring a feast day in her honour.
But no woman heads a Holy See office, no woman sits on his kitchen cabinet. The Vatican’s women’s magazine ran a scathing expose this month of how nuns are treated like indentured servants by the bishops and cardinals they serve.
The other major unmet expectation is on the clerical sex abuse front. Francis set the bar high when he vowed “zero tolerance” for abuse, created an ad-hoc commission of experts to advise him and publicly pledged that bishops would be held accountable when they botched cases.
But he scrapped a planned tribunal to judge those bishops, allowed his advisory commission to lapse and most recently, shocked even his closest advisers by callously dismissing accusations of coverup lodged by victims of Chile’s most notorious predator priest.
The episode further cemented the impression that the 81-year-old Jesuit simply hasn’t grasped how important the scandal is in many parts of the world, and how his papacy will be judged by it.