Pope Francis’ 2019: Panama to Pan-Amazon to Pachamama

A look back at the year that was for the Holy Father

(photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The year 2019 was one of the most challenging of Pope Francis’ six-year pontificate, filled with plentiful activity and personal contact, but also hamstrung by scandal and growing expressions of unease from a minority of the faithful concerned about its direction.

During the past 12 months, the Pope produced a post-synodal apostolic exhortation on young people, announced new norms for dealing with clerical sexual abuse, and held a synod on the Amazon. He also found time to make seven foreign trips, visiting Panama for World Youth Day, Morocco, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Thailand and Japan.

In February, he also became the first pope in modern history to set foot on the Arabian Peninsula, when he visited the United Arab Emirates — all in a year in which he turned 83 and celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest.

The papal year began and ended on the theme of clerical sex abuse, with the Pope sending a message to U.S. bishops attending a Jan. 2-8 retreat, convened at his suggestion, on improving accountability and handling of abuse cases. He called for “collegial awareness” and “evangelical paths” and urged them to win trust by “sincere, daily, humble and generous service to all.”

The retreat was a precursor to a Feb. 21-24 Vatican global summit on abuse, which drew together 114 episcopal conference presidents to find more effective ways to deal with the crisis. Some lauded the meeting as timely and helpful; others felt it did not go far enough.


Vos Estis Lux Mundi

But the summit led to a number of concrete measures: The Pope published in May Vos Estis Lux Mundi (You Are the Light of the World), a set of new norms that placed abuse of seminarians and religious in the same category as minors and vulnerable adults. It also established a “metropolitan model” for investigating accusations against bishops whereby a metropolitan bishop with a Holy See mandate would investigate a suffragan bishop.

Other fruits were a Vatican handbook for bishops on how to deal with such abuse cases, the creation of “task forces” to help bishops, and, at the end of year, papal rescripts that abolished invoking the “pontifical secret” with regard to sex-abuse cases, with the aim of providing greater certainty and transparency.

The Pope also wrote a letter to clergy in August in which he sought to encourage priests suffering because of the crisis fallout.

But Francis also faced persistent personal criticism over his handling of cases, in particular that of Argentinian Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, whom he has allowed to reside in his Santa Martha residence and hold a sinecure position in a Vatican department despite an Argentinian prosecutor requesting in November his arrest over allegations he abused two seminarians.

In April, the Pope published his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on last year’s youth synod. Titled Christus Vivit (Christ Is Alive), it urged young people to be “courageous missionaries,” warned them of the dark aspects of internet activity, and called attention to vulnerable young people caught up in “war, conflict and exploitation.” Despite homosexual groups trying to steer the synod and the unexpected insertion of “synodality” into the final document, the Holy Father’s document hardly mentioned such themes.


Pan-Amazon Synod

By contrast, the Pan-Amazon synod in October was considerably more contentious. All its propositions passed by the required two-thirds majority, including the most controversial: a call for further discussion of a female diaconate; a proposal to ordain married permanent deacons as priests, ostensibly to ease priest shortages in the region; and a call for the “elaboration of an Amazonian rite” of the Mass. The monthlong meeting was welcomed for drawing attention to human and environmental exploitation in the region and how to evangelize it better, but concern was expressed that the synod was a vehicle to apply the controversial propositions to the universal Church, especially in Germany, whose Church leaders had largely sponsored the event.

The meeting was also overshadowed by other controversies, including what some took to be worship of a pagan idol in the Vatican Gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica and a nearby church. The Pope was later accused of committing sacrilegious acts, claims denied by the Vatican, and four pachamama statues were subsequently seized by a young Austrian Catholic from a church near the Vatican and thrown into the Tiber River.

Other synod controversies involved revelations that some of the chief organizers had been funded by the pro-abortion Ford Foundation and that the event appeared to be a mechanism to advance political agendas that were at odds with Catholic teaching.

In his closing words, the Pope criticized Catholic “elites,” whom he accused of focusing on technicalities and forgetting the broader picture. His post-synodal apostolic exhortation will be published in the first half of next year.

Also on the theme of synodality, the Pope took the unusual step of writing a letter in June to caution German Catholics ahead of its two-year synodal path. The process, which fully begins Jan. 31 and comes in response to clerical sexual abuse, could lead the country’s Church down a path inconsistent with the magisterium and, according to some German bishops, into schism. The German bishops’ conference has insisted the process will be united with Rome on questions touching the universal Church.



Cardinal Pell

The conviction of Cardinal George Pell of sexual abuse — his appeal was rejected by an Australian court in August and then later referred to a hearing in the High Court in 2020 — was another challenge for the Pope, who, along with most Church leaders, allowed the case to play out without commenting. The Vatican, for its part, has repeatedly voiced its respect for the Australian justice system while stressing the cardinal has strenuously protested his innocence.

In November, Francis appointed Jesuit Father Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves as the head of Vatican finances, filling the post left vacant since Cardinal Pell returned to Australia in July 2017 to address the legal charges.

In October, Vatican police raided offices in the Secretariat of State and a department charged with monitoring the Vatican against money laundering, following complaints of financial mismanagement. Five employees were suspended, and an investigation is continuing. Francis told reporters the incident shows controls against suspicious activity are working. The head of the Vatican police, Domenico Giani, resigned after the names of the five officials were circulated around the Vatican and made their way into the press.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s leadership came under fire in May when respected Dominican theologian Father Aidan Nichols put his name to an open letter signed by academics calling on bishops to charge Pope Francis with heresy, while another respected theologian, Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, warned that the Church was becoming increasingly divided and heading toward what he called an “internal papal schism.” Francis was also criticized for signing a “Human Fraternity” document in Abu Dhabi that asserted that the diversity of religions is “willed by God.”

He faced further significant blowback from academics and students for allowing major statutory and personnel changes to the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome that critics said would amount to destroying the institution.


Other Actions

In other acts this year, the Pope unexpectedly created 13 new cardinals, many of whom were again drawn from the peripheries and the developing world. They also included Church leaders in tune with his views: open migration policies, concern for the environment and populism, a diplomatic rather than realist stance toward Islam, and sympathies for those supportive of homosexual issues.

After years of requests from historians, the Pope this year authorized the opening of the Vatican Secret Archives in 2020 pertaining to the entire pontificate of Venerable Pius XII (1939-1958). In October, he also renamed them the Vatican Apostolic Archives.

On Dec. 1, Francis issued an apostolic letter on the meaning and importance of Nativity scenes, and in September, he declared the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time to be the “Sunday of the Word of God” in order to promote a closer relationship with holy Scripture and its dissemination in the world.

The Pope also met and received in private audience a number of well-known visitors at the Vatican in 2019, including Russian President Vladimir Putin for a third time since 2014, the young eco-warrior Greta Thunberg, and, perhaps most controversially, the pro-“LGBT” Jesuit Father James Martin.  

Francis also received all the U.S. bishops on their ad limina visit to the Vatican. The bishops welcomed the Pope’s generosity in time and attentiveness, but they also inquired about when the Vatican’s investigation into Theodore McCarrick would be published.

The Pope gave no definitive date, but Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston said the Holy See intended to publish the results of the investigation in the new year, “if not before Christmas.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

A Look Back at 2019 and Ahead to 2020 (Jan. 4)

Catholics bid farewell to 2019 and many look to the New Year with a mixture of anticipation and high suspense. It was a tumultuous 12 months. What were the biggest stories of the last year? This week on Register Radio we talk to Register Managing Editor Tom Wehner. And then we found out what might lie ahead in 2020 for the pro-life movement with Lauretta Brown, Register staff writer.