The Francis effect: Five years on

Pope Francis has been firing the imagination of believers and non-believers alike with his humanity, wit and warmth since becoming the leader of the Roman Catholic Church five years ago.

Five years ago today

Five years ago today – 13 March 2013 – was a damp and drizzly day in Rome, with an air of no great expectation.

It was only day two of a conclave that was expected to be much longer. It had been brought about by the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict the previous month, the first pope to have voluntarily stepped down since 1294.

However, at approximately 7pm on 13 March 2013, white smoke rose from a chimney at the Sistine Chapel - indicating a new Pope had been chosen.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged as the 266th Pope, elected by fellow cardinals in a far quicker time than expected.

Shortly after, he made his debut on the world stage, greeting crowds in St Peter’s Square and those watching on television world-wide with the unexpected, casual buonasera (good evening).

Those in the crowd had braced for seriousness. Instead they got a man in a plain white cassock who called himself Bishop of Rome and said the cardinals had gone to the end of the earth to find him. They laughed and chanted “Viva Il Papa” as bells rang.

From this first interaction, it was immediately apparent that Pope Francis’s style would be different, more down-to-earth than that of previous popes. He was humorous and light-hearted with a lot of humility in the mix.

The first Latin American to become Pope, he gained even more admirers, particularly Italian ones, when it was revealed he was to be named after Francis, the patron saint of Italy.

The People’s Pope

Rarely has a Pope been more popular with the people.

The 81-year-old Argentinian has championed the cause of the marginalised, saying he wanted a “poor church for the poor” and has shunned ostentatious displays of wealth.

Upon becoming Pope – and in true Francis style – he abandoned the plush penthouse apartment used by popes for the past century in favour of a tiny suite in the Vatican guesthouse. He also declined the offer of the palatial papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo.

In 2013, only months after becoming Pope, he was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013 for “pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs, and for balancing judgement with mercy.”

A 2016 survey of Pope Francis’s standing around the globe shows that he is seen positively by well over half the world. Some 54% say their opinion of him is favourable and just 12% see him unfavourably, at the time this was higher than any other secular world leader.

Pope Francis has even embraced 21st century living with an active presence on social media. Pope Francis has 5.2 million followers on Instagram - and has tweeted 1487 times to his 17 million followers!  

Francis’ reform agenda

Francis formed the Council of Cardinals with the aim of reviewing and renewing not just curial operations but also the Vatican’s entire governing constitution.

He created a new Council and Prefecture for the Economy, as well as the Office of the Auditor General, and ordered Vatican staff to clean up any mess.  

Just before the Family Synod in 2015, Francis issued the apostolic letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which reformed the process for handling cases of marriage nullity, offering a simpler and faster process for couples with clear-cut cases, and reaffirming that couples in irregular situations needed to be guided to marriage tribunals to have the truth of their situation examined.

However, reform hasn’t always been easy and Pope Francis has been criticised for delivering little real change.

If, as Francis has said, curial reform really is “like cleaning the Egyptian sphinxes with a toothbrush”, he may be forgiven for the frustrating lack of progress in the last five years.

The International Pope

Pope Francis has travelled more than any other pope in history.

Since 2013, he has completed 34 international trips. His visit to the Philippines in January 2015 became the largest papal event ever with approximately seven million attendees at his final mass in Manila.

In 2018, his scheduled travel plans will take him to Switzerland, Ireland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, India and Romania.

What is next for Pope Francis?

The 81-year-old Pope who said in a 2015 interview, “I have the sense that my pontificate will be brief – four or five years,” celebrates five years as Pope today.

Even so, in the five years as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, there is little doubt of the effect Pope Francis has had. He is honest, humble, humorous and importantly he reminds all of us what what it means to be a human being who thinks of others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves.

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