Pope at 85: No more Mr Nice Guy as reform progresses

ROME (AP) – Pope Francis celebrates his 85th birthday on Friday, a milestone that has become even more remarkable given the coronavirus pandemic, his summer bowel surgery and the weight of history: His predecessor retired at this age and the last pope who has lived longer was Leo XIII over a century ago.

Still, Francis is going strong and recently completed a whirlwind trip to Cyprus and Greece after his pandemic-defying excursions this year to Iraq, Slovakia and Hungary. He has launched an unprecedented two-year consultation of lay Catholics to make the church more adapted to lay people, and shows no sign of slowing down his campaign to make the post-COVID world a more environmentally sustainable, economically just and fraternal one. place where the poor are given priority.

“I see a lot of energy,” said Pastor Antonio Spadaro, one of Francis’ trusted Jesuit communication gurus. “What we see is the natural expression, the fruit of the seeds he has sown.”

But Francis is also plagued by problems at home and abroad and faces an ongoing opposition campaign from the conservative Catholic right. But Francis has the answer with the papal answer to “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”

After spending the first eight years of his papacy gently pushing Catholic hierarchies to embrace economic prudence and responsible governance, Francis became tough and seems ready to keep it that way.

Since his last birthday, Francis ordered a 10% pay cut for cardinals across the board and cut wages to a lesser extent for Vatican staff in an attempt to curb the Vatican’s budget deficit of 50 million euros ($ 57 million). To fight corruption, he imposed a gift ceiling of 40 euros ($ 45) on the staff of the Holy See. He passed a law allowing cardinals and bishops to be prosecuted by the Vatican’s lay court, setting the stage for the high-profile lawsuit against his former close adviser, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, over financial charges.

Outside the Vatican, he has not made many new friends either. After approving a 2019 law outlining the way cardinals and bishops can be investigated for disguising sex abuse, nearly a dozen Polish bishops have rolled out in the past year. Francis also approved time constraints for leaders of lay Catholic movements to try to stem their abuse of power, resulting in the forced removal of influential church leaders. He recently accepted the resignation of the Archbishop of Paris following a media storm claiming governance and personal inappropriateness.

“In the past year, Pope Francis has accelerated his reform efforts by putting real teeth into the Church’s canon law on economics,” said Pastor Robert Gahl, director of the Papal University of the Holy Cross’ Church Leadership Program.

“While celebrating his birthday, Vatican observers are also looking for more concrete signs of compliance with the pope’s new rules, especially from those who report directly to him in the Vatican,” he said in an email, noting that a change in culture is necessary. alongside Francis’ new rules and regulations.

But if there was anything Francis did last year that upset his critics, it was his decision in July to change his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and reintroduce restrictions to celebrate the old Latin Mass. Frans said he had to act because Benedict’s 2007 decision to allow freer celebrations of the old ritual had split the church and been exploited by conservatives.

“Some wanted me dead,” Francis said of his critics.

Speaking to his fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September, Francis confided that he knew his 10-day hospital stay in July for surgery to remove 33 centimeters (about 13 inches) of his colon had set in motion the conservative Catholics. , who were eager for a new pope.

“I know there were even meetings among priests who thought the pope was in worse shape than what was said,” he told the Jesuits in comments later published in the Vatican-approved Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica. “They were preparing the conclave.”

That may not have been the case, but if the story were any guide, these pastors might not have been mistaken as they had at least discussed the view.

Benedict was 85 when he resigned in February 2013 and became the first pope to resign in 600 years, paving the way for Francis’ election. While at the time enjoying robust health, Benedict said he simply did not have the strength to continue.

Before him, John Paul II died at the age of 84, and John Paul I died at age 65 after just 33 days on the job. In fact, all 20th-century popes died in the early ’80s or younger, with the exception of Pope Leo XIII, who was 93 when he died in 1903.

Early in his pontificate, Francis predicted a short papacy of two or three years and credited Benedict for “opening the door” to future papal retirements.

But the Argentine Jesuit made it clear after his operation in July that it “did not even occur to me.”

This is welcome news for Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the best women in the Vatican. Francis called her to help organize the two-year consultation process for Catholics across the globe, known as a synod. She knows well what the pope is up against as he tries to turn the church into a less clerical, more lay-focused institution.

“It’s a call for change,” she told a conference this week. “And we can say it’s not an easy road.”

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