Perspectives Differ on Pope Francis’ Pontificate After 4 Years

On the 4th anniversary of his election, the Holy Father has been praised by the media for bringing the Church closer to the world, while some within the Church feel ignored.

Pope Francis at the Rome parish of St. Magdalene of Canossa, March 12, 2017. Although widely praised after four years as Pope, his critics feel sidelined and not listened to.
Pope Francis at the Rome parish of St. Magdalene of Canossa, March 12, 2017. Although widely praised after four years as Pope, his critics feel sidelined and not listened to. (photo: Lucía Ballester/CNA)

March 13 marks four years since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope “from the end of the world,” offering the simple greeting “Buona sera” (good evening) from the loggia of St. Peter Basilica. 

The anniversary means the Vatican is on holiday and no official papal engagements have been scheduled.

Writing in today’s L’Osservatore Romano, editor Giovanni Maria Vian praised Francis as a pope for the current time, a “missionary pontiff” whose prayer life and contemplation helps the Church to “go out of herself towards the existential peripheries.”

Today’s Italian newspapers, like much of the media, have generally recognized the milestone by praising the Pope for the way he has governed these past four years.

Il Messaggero speaks of a revolution that has changed the image and face of the Church, from one of being a distant institution marred by scandal, to a “cleaner” image that is closer to the people. The Pope’s wish has become apparent, writes Franca Giansoldati, which is to bring the Church back to her origins, to the early Christian communities. 

The latest innovation along these lines, Giansoldati points out, is a new initiative to involve Rome’s faithful in choosing the next Vicar of Rome, the most senior administrator of the diocese. Cardinal Agostino Vallini is retiring, and so the Holy Father has decided that everyone — clergy, religious and laity — should write to the Pope highlighting the sufferings in the diocese, objectives, the kind of Vicar of Rome they would like, and perhaps even offering some names.

The vicariate has set up an office to deal swiftly with all the suggestions, which must be submitted by April 12. The Pope, who is expected to appoint Cardinal Vallini’s successor after Easter, has allegedly already chosen for the role Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, but the people’s suggestions will reportedly “serve as a compass” in further helping his choice. The move matches his general approach to consulting the faithful more and being more collegial, based on his “inverted pyramid” model of governance.

Il Fatto Quotidiano has noted the 4th anniversary by describing Francis as the “Pope of mercy,” hospitality and inclusion. His pontificate, writes Marco Marzano, is one that has tried to “hold opposites together,” to please everyone, inside and outside the Church. He is a pope who is trying to befriend and include, for example, both the Society of St. Pius X and liberation theologians.

But Marzano recalls that Jorge Bergoglio wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, he was “in various ways” like Pope St. John Paul II, in “full support of repressing the Marxist threat,” so much so, that it led to John Paul appointing him Archbishop of Buenos Aires and later cardinal. “Another era,” writes Marzano. “Now Francis is the Pope of all.”

For some, however, his inclusiveness goes only so far. 

Within the Vatican concerns about the direction of this pontificate have increased in recent months. Beyond the four cardinals who submitted the dubia, five questions on the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, other cardinals and officials are uneasy about a prevailing confusion not only deriving from differing interpretations of that document, but about Francis’ pontificate more generally.

These concerned Church leaders are also demoralized by the absence of dialogue with those critical of aspects of his pontificate, his frequent running down of the Curia, and the harsh and personal attacks against the Pope’s critics delivered by some of his close associates and allies. Francis’ frequent criticisms especially of “rigid” Catholics, referring to those who try to uphold the Church’s teaching, has been a further bone of contention seen as unnecessarily sowing seeds of disunity.

A related concern is that a parallel curia has been developing whereby groups are set up to pursue reformist, innovative and controversial initiatives, while dicastery heads and their officials continue their work oblivious to such plans.   

In short, the strong praise the Pope has won over the past four years, largely from those on the peripheries, outside the Church, or adherents to pastoral innovations, is matched by an internal unease, deep concern and genuine anguish by those who have trouble reconciling this pontificate with those of the past.

That discontent is heightened by the fact that these groups feel overlooked and not listened to (it’s widely known the Pope never acknowledges or replies to petitions or letters critical of Amoris Laetitia, for example, including the dubia). This and the fact that the reform the Holy Father has enacted is not the kind many of his cardinals were expecting when he was elected has led many of them here to frequently and discreetly ask: “What is to be done?”

Perhaps the Pope partly offered a solution himself during his pastoral visit yesterday to the Rome parish of St. Magdalene of Canossa. He told the children present that “listening is the first step of dialogue” and that “one of the ugliest diseases of today is the lack of an ability to listen, as if we had blocked our ears.”

Instead, he held up the “concreteness of dialogue,” what he called the “ear apostolate,” which begins by letting “the other always speak first” and then to “listen well.” Dialogue, he said, “is always a bridge.”