10 years with Pope Francis: Pushing the Church to bring the Gospel to the world

March 14, 2023

Pope Francis bows his head in prayer during his election night appearance on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican March 13, 2013. The crowd joined the pope in silent prayer after he asked them to pray that God would bless him. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — For a decade, even when discussing the internal workings of the Vatican, Pope Francis has insisted the Church is not the Church of Christ if it does not reach out, sharing the “joy of the Gospel” and placing the poor at the center of its attention.

Signals that his papacy would be different started the moment he stepped out on the balcony of St. Pe1ter’s Basilica the evening of March 13, 2013: He was not wearing a red, ermine-trimmed cape, and he bowed as he asked the crowd to pray that God would bless him.

A pope of surprises

Reflecting on the election of Pope Francis, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, said “Ten years ago, Pope Francis was a surprise choice coming to us from Argentina and over these years has continued to be a Pope of surprises.”

“Pope Francis has consistently called for a renewal in our attentiveness to those on the margins and the most vulnerable among us,” he said. “I am grateful to Pope Francis for these past ten years and pray for his ministry daily.”

Less than three years after the pope’s election, Cardinal DiNardo was among the select few on the tarmac to greet Pope Francis when the pontiff arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland near Washington in 2015 for his landmark papal visit to the United States.

40 trips and counting

The pope’s decision not to live in the Apostolic Palace, his invitations to Vatican trash collectors, gardeners and other employees to join him for his daily Mass, his insistence on going to the Italian island of Lampedusa to celebrate Mass and pray for migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean drew the attention of the media.

But not everyone was pleased with the seeming ease with which he set aside pomp and protocol. And tensions within the Catholic community grew as he expressed openness to LGBTQ Catholics and to those living in what the church considers irregular marriage situations and when he said in an interview in 2013 that the church cannot talk only about abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

One kind of summary of his first 10 years as pope can be found in numbers: He has made 40 trips abroad, visiting 60 countries; in eight consistories he created 95 cardinals under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave and paid tribute to 26 churchmen over the age of 80; and he has presided over the canonizations of 911 new saints, including a group of more than 800 martyrs, but also Sts. John Paul II, John XXIII and Paul VI.

In his first major document, the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” he laid out a program for his papacy, looking inside the church and outside at the world to see what needed to be done to “encourage and guide the whole church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality.”

The document included a discussion of the need to reform church institutions to highlight their missionary role; to encourage pastoral workers to listen to and stand with the people they were ministering to -- his famous line about having “the smell of the sheep”; to deepen an understanding of the church as “the entire people of God” and not as an institution or, worse, a club of the elect; to integrate the poor into the church and society, rather than simply see them as objects of assistance; and to promote peace and dialogue.

Embracing a ‘lived experience’

For Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, the agenda of Pope Francis is the original agenda of the Second Vatican Council.

Unlike St. John Paul II and the late Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis did not attend any of the council sessions. And, in fact, because he was ordained to the priesthood Dec. 13, 1969, he is the first pope to be ordained a priest after Vatican II.

“After Scripture and tradition, the council is the significant foundation, and I would say, characteristic orientation of this papacy,” the cardinal told Catholic News Service. “He has taken the council not from a collection of decrees, but from the lived experience of the council as implemented, as lived, as tested, as developed, you might say, in the church of Latin America.”

St. John XXIII launched the council with a pastoral focus on what it means to be the church in the modern world, he said. The papacies of St. John Paul and Pope Benedict, he said, “reverted to a more doctrinal understanding of the council” with “some very good results and with some massive, unfinished business.”

While the work of Pope Francis’ predecessors was important, he said, “I don’t think it picked up the primary agenda (of the council), which was implementing a new understanding of church in the modern world, a new way of evangelizing because the world is so different from how it was, let’s say, at the end of World War II.”

In the peripheries

Emilce Cuda, an Argentine theologian, a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, agreed that a key to understanding Pope Francis’ pontificate is knowing how Vatican II was lived in Latin America with respect for popular piety and culture, and trust in the “sensus fidei,” the notion that the baptized together have a “sense of faith” and an ability “to understand what God says to us, to his people, in every moment.”

“There in the popular culture, in the peripheries, and in all the people of God, we can hear what God wants from us, or what God tells us to do in response to social problems and in the Church in each moment,” she said. “We are in history and history is a movement, and the situation is not the same (as) in the 20th century or in the 21st century.”

As for disagreements with or even controversies about the papacy of Pope Francis, Cardinal Czerny warned against confusing “loud with representative or loud with majority. Loud doesn’t mean any of those things; it means loud.”

But, he said, “the patience of Pope Francis” leads him and encourages others to recognize that the pope’s critics “are not 100% off beam,” or off track; there usually is a grain of truth in what they say or an important value they hold dear that is being overlooked.

Synodal efforts

Joseph Cardinal Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told CNS he believes the first 10 years of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been preparation for “what’s happening right now, and that’s the synodal conversation.”

The Second Vatican Council called Catholics to read the “signs of the times” and respond. And, the cardinal said, “this notion that we don’t have automatically prepared prescriptions for every challenge that faces us leads us to a fundamental tenet of our belief,” which is belief “in the Holy Spirit, the lord and giver of life.”

The synod process, which began with listening to people around the globe and will move toward two assemblies mainly of bishops, is about listening to the Holy Spirit.

As president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal DiNardo was also one of four U.S. Bishops who attended the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment convened by Pope Francis in October 2018.

Cardinal DiNardo moderated one of the working groups and also gave an address to the entire Synod of Bishops. In his address titled “Hail O Cross, our Only Hope,” Cardinal DiNardo said: “Jesus evangelizes through His identity as the Crucified Lord. It is impossible not to see this throughout the Gospels.”

These encounters with the pope were among several that Cardinal DiNardo had with Pope Francis in the last decade.