Five Years a Pope: Francis’ Focus has Been on Outreach

Five Years a Pope: Francis’ Focus has Been on Outreach

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Pope Francis appears for the first time on the central balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this March 13, 2013, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope just a few days after telling the College of Cardinals that the Catholic Church faced a clear choice between being a church that “goes out” or a church focused on its internal affairs.
After the cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected March 13, 2013, and chose the name Francis, he made “go out,” “periphery” and “throwaway culture” standard phrases in the papal vocabulary.

Catholics have a wide variety of opinions about how Pope Francis is exercising the papal ministry, and many of his comments – both in informal news conferences and in formal documents – have stirred controversy. But, as he wrote in “Evangelii Gaudium,” the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

But there are two areas of internal church affairs that he recognized needed immediate attention: the reform of the Roman Curia and the full protection of children and vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse.

The organizational reform of the Curia has been taking place in stages, but Pope Francis has insisted that the real reform is a matter of changing hearts and embracing service.

On the issue of abuse, nine months into his pontificate, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the survivors.

While Pope Francis has emphatically proclaimed “zero tolerance” for abusers and recently said covering up abuse “is itself an abuse,” as his fifth anniversary approached serious questions arose about how he handled accusations that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, who was a priest at the time, covered up allegations of abuse against his mentor.

The new scandal threatened to undermine the widespread popularity of Pope Francis and his efforts to set the Catholic Church on a new course.

For Pope Francis, that new course involves evangelization first of all.

“Evangelizing presupposes a desire in the church to come out of herself,” he had told the cardinals just days before the conclave that elected him. “The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery.”

Mercy is the first thing the Catholic Church is called to bring to those peripheries, he says.

Although in 2013 he told reporters he would not be traveling as much as his predecessors, Pope Francis has continued their practice of literally “going out,” making 22 trips outside of Italy and visiting 32 nations.

But he also regularly visits the peripheries of Rome, both its poor suburbs and its hospitals, rehabilitation centers, prisons and facilities for migrants and refugees.

His desire to reach out has inspired innovations that were noteworthy at the beginning of the papacy, but now seem to be a natural part of a pope’s day. For example, after beginning with Vatican gardeners and garbage collectors, the pope continues to invite a small group of Catholics to join him most weekday mornings for Mass in the chapel of his residence.

The residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, is a guesthouse built by St. John Paul II with the intention of providing decent housing for cardinals when they would enter a conclave to elect a new pope. Pope Francis decided after the 2013 conclave to stay there and not move into the more isolated papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

In the first three years of his papacy, he published three major documents: “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel); “Laudato Si’, on (Care for Our Common Home) on the environment; and “’Amoris Laetitia’ (The Joy of Love), on Love in the Family,” his reflections on the discussions of the Synod of Bishops in 2014 and 2015.

People skeptical about the scientific proof that human activity is contributing to climate change objected to parts of “Laudato Si’,” but the criticism was muted compared to reactions to Pope Francis’ document on the family, especially regarding ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that, under some conditions, some of those Catholics could return to the sacraments.