Five Years of Francis: The Keys to His Papacy

five years of francis

Pope Francis has been a remarkable pontiff by almost any measure, one who may well rank among the most consequential in the long and colorful history of the papacy.

That judgment might even be shared by his detractors, if for different reasons from those of his far more numerous supporters, who welcome Francis’ passionate promotion of a more pastoral, less legalistic Catholicism.

But five years after Francis’ clamorous election, the source of this acclaim remains a matter of much debate.

And at this milestone, perhaps a more important question arises: Is there anything beyond this personal appeal that can outlast Francis himself?

What has he really changed, and what is to prevent another pope from undoing those changes?

Many of the factors that have fueled the public’s fascination with Francis are relatively easy to spot, and they start with the novelty and surprise of his election on March 13, 2013.

The Keys of Peter

We love anything that seems unprecedented, and the conclave of 2013 had plenty of “firsts.”

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was, for example, the first pope in history to call himself Francis, taking the name of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular and recognizable saints ever, whose life of poverty and love of the poor, of peace and of all creation make him a beloved icon—yet not exactly a traditional papal role model.

Francis was also the first pope ever from outside the European orbit, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, from “the ends of the earth,” as he put it in his plainspoken opening remarks to the crowd gathered on a drizzly evening in St. Peter’s Square.

He was also the first Jesuit pope, a miracle of its own for anyone who knows the history of relations between the Society of Jesus and the papacy.

And Francis followed the first pope to resign the Chair of Saint Peter in some six centuries.

That is a lot of novelty; and even in a modern world addicted to regular jolts of “breaking news” and hyped headlines, these developments stood out as truly momentous.

The narrative of change did not end with Francis’ election night appearance, but continued as the new pope was photographed paying his own hotel bill and then moving permanently into the modest Vatican guest residence rather than living in the sumptuous apostolic palace.

Other anecdotes reinforced the storyline: Francis calling his cobbler in Argentina to ask him to repair his battered old pair of shoes; Francis visiting a Roman optometrist to get a new pair of specs rather than having the shopkeeper come to him; Francis cold-calling people around the world; Francis giving interviews willy-nilly and so on.

One urban legend even had it that Francis sneaked out of the Vatican at night to aid Rome’s homeless.

It wasn’t true, but that hardly mattered.

The sheer surprise of Francis’ election was also a factor.

John Paul II had been pope for 26 years at the time of his death, and his doctrinal wingman, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was elected to succeed him in 2005 as Benedict XVI.

The combined pontificates represented 35 years of a traditional reorientation in the church, and those two popes had named all of the 113 cardinals who went into the 2013 conclave

Yet the Holy Spirit, who often gets short shrift in the Catholic Church, blows where it will, and the election of Bergoglio was such a surprise it made even the most jaded Vatican-watchers, and more than a few non-Catholics, wonder if there indeed was a new Pentecost in the air. Continue reading

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