Pope Francis: The Catholic Church's Superman?

He has made it his mission to tear down walls. After five years in office, Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, has become a theological and political pop star. DW looks back on his papacy so far.

Prayer is political. Especially at the border wall between Mexico and the United States. On a visit there two years ago, Pope Francis did not mince his words: "A person who thinks of building walls instead of bridges is not Christian. That is not the Gospel."

The target of the pope's criticism was clear: US President Donald Trump's plans to extend the wall between Mexico and the US. Even Trump's visit to the Vatican in May 2017 failed to tear down the ideological wall between the two men.

The now 81-year-old Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, the first pope from Latin America, has been in office for five years now. Just two minutes after his election on March 13, 2013, it was clear that this Pope "from the end of the Earth," as Bergoglio introduced himself at the time, wasn't like his predecessors.

Read more: Vatileaks sheds light on pope's reform struggles

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Pope calls for Middle East dialog in Urbi et Orbi address

Revolution on Cuba

Francis is both political and pastoral. He prays at the West Bank Barrier in Bethlehem for peace between Israel and Palestine. He takes in refugees at the Vatican. He engineered the end of the political freeze between Cuba and the USA. And he forgives women who have had abortions.

"Francis wants to overcome divisions, not cement things with walls. He is very political in that sense," said Bernd Klaschka, the former managing director of Adveniat, an organization of the German episcopate that assists the Catholic Church in South America, and a good friend of the pope.

"Francis has a similar role in Latin America to the one Pope John Paul II had in Europe when he contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain there."

Although the barrier between Mexico and the US continues to grow, Francis has succeeded in tearing down walls in Colombia and Cuba. Thanks to his skilful mediation between the parties, decades-old conflicts have been defused. Furthermore, Francis' visit to the Central African Republic in 2015 led to a ceasefire and free elections.

Read more: Pope Francis and the Vatican Revolution

Italien Wandgemälde Papst Fraziskus und Donald Trump in Rom

A Rome mural depicting Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump kissing

Farewell to Europe

There are also signs of change within the Catholic Church itself, though this only becomes apparent on closer inspection. By naming new cardinals from Latin America, Africa and Asia, and increasingly devolving decision-making power to national and regional episcopal conferences, Francis is undermining the Vatican's hegemony.

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Of the 49 cardinals Francis has appointed since becoming pope, the majority came from developing and emerging nations. Up until then, these countries had not received much attention from the Vatican. However, when the 117 members of the papal conclave meet for the next election, these cardinals could deliver the first African pope.

The youngest member of the papal conclave is the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga. "This pontiff loves Africa," he told DW enthusiastically. "Just recently he called on all Catholics and the whole world to pray for peace in Congo and South Sudan."

The bishop of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, embodies the future of the Catholic Church. Nzapalainga was awarded the Aachen Peace Prize in 2015, together with the imam Kobine Layam.

Read more:Pope Francis calls for change to English translation of the Lord's Prayer 

Minefield of Myanmar

Both spiritual leaders have been active in campaigning for the peaceful coexistence of religions in the Central African Republic, which is in the throes of civil war. This is also a trademark of Pope Francis. However, he was not successful in attempting to carry out this mission in Myanmar during his visit there in late 2017.

For the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, the rejuvenation of the papal conclave is proof that the Francis "will found a dynasty of popes from the developing world." "This pope will change the church," he prophesied in an interview with DW shortly before Francis took office. "With Francis, spring has come to the church."

Could it even be a Brazilian spring? The Catholic Church in Brazil is getting heavily involved behind the scenes. It was the Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes, a member of the Papal Commission for Latin America, who suggested the name Francis to the newly-elected Pope Bergoglio.

Read more:Pope Francis uses 'Rohingya' to refer to refugees 

Religion

'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.

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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.

Religion

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.

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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.

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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.

Religion

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Religion

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.

Could married men become priests?

Brazil also jostled to the fore on the pope's first trip abroad when Francis traveled to Rio for World Youth Day in 2013. Now another major event for church policy is on the horizon: the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, to be held in the Vatican in 2019. A decision could be made on allowing married men to be consecrated as priests.

From the Catholic point of view, relaxing the rule on celibacy, which has been in place for centuries, would be a revolution. And precisely this is attracting more and more opponents. They want to prevent a "Copacabana" theology that would involve relaxing dogmas and questioning the traditional teachings of the church.

The archbishop of Accra thinks this is exaggerated. "I know that some conservatives are not happy with his rather very large-hearted approach to pastoral challenges," Gabriel Charles Palmer Buckle confirmed in an interview with DW. But Francis, he said, has simply requested that bishops and priests show compassion. "But the church is not only for conservatives!"