Opinion: 5 years of Pope Francis — it's a start

Much admired, but also criticized, Pope Francis has been in office for five years now. He has already formed a legacy as a "pope of the people" — and has changed the church, says Christoph Strack.
Christoph Strack
Christoph Strack

In his own words, Francis is the pope "from the end of the Earth." In his first public address as pope-elect, on the evening of March 13, 2013, he said that the conclave of cardinals had gone "almost to the other end of the Earth" to find the new Bishop of Rome.

From Buenos Aires to Rome. Few cardinals had to make a longer journey to the Vatican than this Argentine archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It remains a hugely symbolic appointment. The Catholic Church turned its back on what had been, for hundreds of years, its European character and well-established centrism.

Read more: The main differences between Catholics and Protestants 

5 years of Pope Francis

'Buona sera!'

On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio greeted the crowd in St. Peter's Square in the heart of Rome with a simple "good evening!" moments after the Conclave had selected him as the new pope. He thus began his term with a down-to-earth tone that has marked his stewardship of the Catholic Church ever since.

5 years of Pope Francis

Reform committee 'K9'

The new pontiff immediately tackled topics that the Catholic Church had been discussing before his election. He set up a nine-person cardinal conference to reform the church's organization and direction. The guiding principle: the Roman Catholic Church is not an end in itself. Instead, it should seek to spread the teachings of the Bible and bring the Vatican and its followers closer together.

5 years of Pope Francis

Supporting the weak

The deaths of migrants crossing from Africa to Europe are "a thorn in the heart," said Pope Francis on his first bridge building trip to Lampedusa. At the time of his visit in the summer of 2013, thousands of migrants were on the Italian island hoping to receive legal permits to continue their journey onto the European mainland.

5 years of Pope Francis

Symbol of humility

It aligned perfectly with his own message of the "poor church:" the picture of Pope Francis with the 30-year-old Renault 4 that he had received as a gift from a pastor in Verona. Francis reportedly wanted to drive the car, but was not allowed to due to security concerns. The symbol of modesty has endured.

5 years of Pope Francis

Francis the celebrity

Francis' worldly style quickly made him an icon for progressive Catholics and other Christians. Even non-Christians applauded the pope and rubbed their eyes in amazement at the contrast between Francis and his conservative and academic predecessor, Pope Benedict. After 10 months in office, Francis became the first pope to make the cover of "Rolling Stone" magazine.

5 years of Pope Francis

Controversial bridge builder

Francis takes his task as bridge builder very seriously. He has acted as a mediator between warring parties in civil conflicts in central Africa and Colombia and also helped bring an end to frozen relations between the US and Cuba. With an eye toward the Mexican-US border, he has also urged US President Donald Trump to build bridges rather than walls.

5 years of Pope Francis

Believers and religions from all corners of the earth

Francis has also tried to build bridges between confessions and religions. He prayed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem and met the Grand Mufti Mohammad Hussein. In Egypt, he visited the head of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, and Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb. In Myanmar, he spoke to Buddhist monks and in Havanna, he met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kyrill I (pictured).

5 years of Pope Francis

People person

Francis spontaneously wed a couple on an airplane during a trip to Chile in January 2018. The two crew members were traveling with the pope on a flight from the capital Santiago to the northern city of Iquique. They had apparently told Francis of their plans to marry.

5 years of Pope Francis

Criticism from within the church

Francis' reform course has been too radical for some clerics. This poster in Rome accused Francis of showing no mercy within the church. He reportedly also has little time for dissent within the Vatican. Some church members think his course is too secular, his humility too bold, its display too media-orientated. The essence of religiosity – spirituality – some fear, could get lost in it all.

5 years of Pope Francis

Sexual abuse scandal in the Church

But the major challenge now faced by Francis is the problem of sexual abuse, including of minors, by church representatives. In January, the pontiff was heavily criticized for supporting Chilean Bishop Juan Barros (pictured right), accused of an abuse cover-up. On a recent trip to Ireland, the pope begged for forgiveness amid an abuse scandal there. But critics say much more is needed.

The otherness of Francis

Pope Francis embodies and ensures this changing of the guard. If you come from the end of the Earth, you have a different perspective on centers and centrism. If you then come to live in the center, you are more skeptical, critical, relaxed, and more self-deprecating. Other ends of the Earth are also important to the now 81-year-old pope. He has appointed cardinals from crisis regions and from Pacific islands; he demonstratively seeks the company of people at the margins of society, and he has announced a special Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019, because the church is no longer reaching people there.

DW's Christoph Strack

A wave of enthusiasm for Francis' otherness, compared to all his modern-age predecessors, lasted for several months after he took office. Look, the pope is also just a man! Then many started to see this as mythologizing, or even narcissism. All of this, whether well-meant or not so well-meant, falls short of the point. At the heart of Francis' message is the concept of "charity," in the sense of mercy and compassion. He has taken Jesus' message out of its religious speech-bubble; he wants to see it put into practice in real life. Pope Francis touches people, especially those in the margins and those who find themselves at the end – the disabled, the old, refugees, the desperate — in a prophet-like manner. Experiencing such scenes close-up, leaves you speechless.

Pope Francis greets a member of a Peruvian indigenous group

No matter how many years Francis continues to lead the church, he will leave it both inspired and devastated when he goes. If it wants to be the salvation of all people, not just a small group of the righteous, it must change. The man from the end of the Earth will be its inspiration for a new beginning. In any case, there is no going back. The cardinal of the Roman Curia responsible for sacraments and liturgies is currently leading a campaign against the practice of receiving Communion in the hand; he wants to see a return to receiving the sacrament on the tongue. Compared to the way Francis goes about things, this almost seems like satire. What the pope cares about is the hunger for this sacrament, and the hungry themselves. He is not concerned with questions of formality.

Stern admonisher

It must, however, be clearly said that Francis is not a reformer who is happy just to get rid of everything of value. He is neither conservative nor liberal, neither right nor left. He tries not to let himself be pigeonholed, but to position himself at the center, the heart of faith. Once there, it is no problem for him to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with an Orthodox Jew, a Lutheran female bishop, or a Muslim.

Pope Francis is a stern admonisher of political leaders around the world. His political speeches often take the form of encouragement, but they can also be dark and dramatic. His appearances at the European Parliament and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, before the US Congress in Washington, or the UN General Assembly in New York were dazzling examples of firm political response. Francis has repeatedly said that we are currently seeing "a kind of World War III."

There could hardly be a clearer denouncing of the suffering of millions of people in conflicts around the world or extreme social disparity. A very spiritual and political figure at the same time, Francis is driven by compassion. This is the message he has brought from the end of the Earth to the center.

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