VATICAN CITY — A papal trip to Mexico, the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa and Pope Francis’ 80th birthday are likely to be key highlights in this papal year, but those are about the only absolute certainties in this pontificate of surprises during 2016.
In just over a month, the Holy Father embarks on his 12th visit outside Italy, when he flies to Mexico for a six-city tour that will include visiting an area stricken by drug-related violence, a poor suburb of Mexico City, and celebrating Mass at a border town close to El Paso, Texas.
That stop, in Ciudad Juarez, is likely to be closely watched as the U.S. presidential elections move into full gear and immigration figures highly among the policy concerns of the candidates.
The Pope will also meet indigenous people in Chiapas, in the far south of the country, as well as visit prisoners and a pediatric center. The Feb. 12-18 trip will highlight the Pope’s frequent call on the faithful to go to the peripheries and bring the Gospel to the poor and marginalized.
“The Pope is coming to share the life of the Mexican people,” said Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to Mexico. “He doesn’t pretend to resolve the problems” facing the country, but will “surely give us some surprises of which we are not yet aware,” the papal diplomat told Vatican Radio Jan. 5.
The Pope’s Mexico trip is the only one confirmed so far this year, but Francis has said he plans to also visit Armenia, and sources have told the Register he may add a leg to Georgia on that apostolic voyage. He is also expected to visit Poland for World Youth Day July 25-31.
Another visit to a European country outside Italy later in the year is also a possibility, but the Pope will almost certainly make fewer papal trips than last year, in which he spent 37 days away from the Vatican (as opposed to 18 in 2014).
“I am old, and these trips are heavy,” he told reporters on the plane back from Africa in November, his most recent overseas trip. In 2014, he promised to visit France in 2015, but that appears to have been mothballed for now.
Reforms and Appointments
Despite his advanced age — the Holy Father will turn 80 on Dec. 17 — he remains in reasonably good health, but some speculate, including the Pope himself, that he hasn’t a great deal of time. Last year he said he had “a vague sensation” that his pontificate would be brief, maybe “four or five years; I do not know.”
Expect, therefore, a possible acceleration in both reforms of the Roman Curia and ecclesial appointments.
A priority for the Pope is to push ahead with his plans for decentralizing the Church, moving the emphasis away from the Vatican and towards bishops’ conferences, in order to make the Church more “collegial” and “synodal.” The next meeting of the “Council of Nine” cardinals (C9), the body looking at reform of the Curia and Church governance, will be dedicated to reflecting on decentralization, along the lines of Pope Francis’ landmark speech on Oct. 17 last year, in which the Pope called for a more “listening” Church, based on the concept of synodality.
The Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops will also hold a seminar in February, in which experts will look at the possibilities in this regard, using the Pope’s speech as the basis for discussion.
Later this year, the Pope will also probably create two new “super dicasteries”: Justice, Peace and Charity will form one of them; Laity, Life and the Family the other. Both are fruits of the reforms drawn up by the C9 and are expected to be congregations, headed by a cardinal.
Meanwhile, the two-year reform process of Vatican communications is expected to take shape, consisting of personnel and structural changes. Vatican sources have told the Register that the Pontifical Council for Social Communications has already been “officially suppressed” and merged into the new Secretariat for Communications.
The Pope may also announce a cardinal-making consistory this year (he has held two: one in 2014, with the other last year, creating 31 voting cardinals in total), in which he’ll likely create around 10-15 new red hats eligible to vote in a conclave. The total number of such cardinal electors, aged under 80, is currently just three short of the 120 limit set by Blessed Paul VI, but 10 of them will reach that threshold by the year’s end, giving Francis the opportunity to call a consistory in the latter half of the year. Some believe he could also dispense with Paul VI’s limit, taking the number up to 130 or more, thereby allowing him to call a consistory earlier in the year.
Apostolic Exhortation and Year of Mercy
Also expected this year is the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, or summary conclusions, of the two synods on the family. The most probable dates for the document to appear are sometime between February and April, possibly timed with the feast of St. Joseph (March 19) or Divine Mercy Sunday (April 3). Many will be interested to see whether or not the Pope uses the document to admit remarried divorcees to holy Communion in some shape or form. The most likely scenario at the moment is that he will leave such pastoral decisions to bishops’ conferences, as part of his push towards decentralization.
The Holy Father will be granting some special Jubilee of Mercy audiences this year (dates for these can be found on the holy year website), as well as attending numerous events connected with the year. And on one Friday each month during the jubilee, the Vatican says, he will make “symbolic actions” aimed at being “concrete expressions of the works of mercy.” These include private visits to individuals or institutions, through which the Pope “intends to highlight the major forms of need, marginalization and poverty that are present in society.”
Mother Teresa’s Canonization
A highlight of the jubilee will be the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa, most probably in September. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from around the world are expected to attend the Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
On the world stage, the Pope is likely to continue to push for the protection of persecuted Christians, make repeated appeals for justice and peace, especially for migrants, and advocate safeguarding creation by taking steps to combat climate change and other environmental concerns. Many of these appeals are likely to be made during his annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, to take place on Jan. 11.
Lastly, an important conference to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is also to take place in Sweden in October, during which a “breakthrough” in Catholic-Lutheran relations is rumored to be possible, but it’s not clear yet if or how Pope Francis will play a role.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.