Pope Francis and the reformation of Rome

Five-years into his Papacy, Pope Francis has likened reforming Rome to “cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush”. Pope Francis’ remarks, which were made earlier this year amidst the splendour of Clementina Hall, were greeted with stone-faced seriousness by the gathered crowd.

Five years of Francis

This year, the Catholic Church celebrated the fifth anniversary of the evening the conclave of 115 cardinal electors sent a cloud of white smoke out of the Sistine Chapel to announce Habemus Papam, or “we have a Pope”. The act signaled the election of Argentinian Jesuit Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy. He then took the moniker Pope Francis as his Papal name.

Pope Francis’ energetic charisma was notable right from the start. His vibrancy stood in stark contrast to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. His vitality, his hunger for change and reformation was also evident.

Radical reformation in the Catholic Church

Upon his election, Pope Francis immediately brought attention to some previously hotly contested and taboo subjects within the Catholic Church.

As a new pope, he addressed everything from how the Church handles Holy Communion for divorced Catholics to the Church’s response to same-sex couples. The notably liberal pope also publicly acknowledged climate change. His encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home serves as an appeal to “every person living on this planet” for an inclusive and ongoing dialogue about how humanity is impacting the planet on which we live.

Pope Francis’ reformation plan also included actions which aimed to dilute the influence of Italian cardinals who made up the highest echelons of the Church’s hierarchy. Under his reformation plan, departments within the Church which had remained unchanged for centuries were targets for streamlining and modernisation.

Pope Francis’ papacy has been marked by a number of positive and well-received moments, including his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos in order to witness, first-hand, the plight of the Muslim refugees there who are seeking asylum within Europe. Another celebrated act was when he brazenly gave Donald Trump a climate change manifesto as a gift.

Resistance to change

While Pope Francis’ plan for change came as a breath of fresh air for many, others dug in and stood in staunch opposition to the Pope’s push for change and reform. In the Pope’s Christmas message, he called out those he described as “traitors of trust”. This was interpreted as many to be a concession that his push for reform has run into insurmountable opposition.

According to Massimo Franco, a well-respected Vatican commentator, Pope Francis’ bid for change and “revolutionary appeal” has likely hit a dead end.

Speaking at a briefing at Chatham House in London, Franco surmised that Pope Francis’ comments about the bureaucracy within the Vatican in which he made mention of its “cliques and plots”, were likely indicative of Pope Francis’ powerlessness, if not a resignation to failure.

“We live with a sort of rosy picture of this papacy because his popularity is like a bubble in which all the problems of the church are veiled or even hidden,” Franco said. “But in the Vatican - and the Church the world over - problems are huge and this pontificate has not been able to solve them.”

Pope Francis comes under fire

In addition to his plans for reformation falling short, Pope Francis’ has come under fire from a number of organisations both inside and outside the Church. His ever growing and evolving relationship with China as well as his perceived unwillingness to make a strong public statement against Vladimir Putin’s action on Crimea, have rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Perceived as a sympathiser of Latin America, Pope Francis’ thoughts on the Cold War have led to tense relations between him, the United States and Donald Trump.

The Pope has also received significant criticism in the media. Catherine Pepinster, author of The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy said in a recent article for The Observer that there are, “whispers in the Vatican loggias that the Pope is a communist, a populist and not a proper Catholic.

“The opposition to him was most clearly felt during the synods on the family in 2014 and 2015 over allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion,” Pepinster said.

“Four cardinals later issued dubia, or documents of theological doubts - an unprecedented challenge to papal authority.”

Franco echoes Pepinster’s sentiment and suggests the Pope’s “most thorny problem” is not that his vision of a new Church runs contrary to the wishes of those he is opposing, those who were appointed during decades when the doctrine of Vatican II was being pushed into the background in favour of an authoritarian version of Catholicism. Rather, Franco suggests the problem is “inside the Vatican - the Pope has lost his fight.

“Both economic reforms and the reforms of the Curia are not going ahead anymore,” Franco claims. “In fact, I would say they are bouncing backwards.”

Controversy in the Vatican

Adding fuel to the fire burning beneath the idea Pope Francis’ vision of reformation had reached a dead end was the forced resignation of the Vatican’s Auditor-General, Libero Milone.

Following his resignation, Milone claimed he had been forced to quit after finding irregularities and evidence of illegal activities. Milone went so far as to say there were those in the Vatican who wanted to “slow down Pope Francis’ efforts at financial reform”.

In response to his accusations, senior Vatican officials claimed Milone had been spying on senior colleagues.

Just two weeks after the controversy surrounding Milone’s departure from the Vatican, George Pell, the Australian Cardinal who had been appointed by Pope Francis as the head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, announced he would be returning to Australia to face charges of sexual abuse.

Pope Francis so far

Early in Pope Francis’ papacy he likened the Catholic Church to a field hospital in a conflict zone. According to Franco, this analogy is quite apt in that the Church is still embroiled in the drama following Pope Benedict’s resignation and the scandals within the Vatican which proceeded it.

“After five years, what is striking is that we are still in the field hospital,” Franco said.

“This is paradoxical and speaks volumes about the difficulties of this Pope.

“I always make the comparison with an earthquake. At first you need tents and shelters, but after five-years you want houses and a real hospital. This Pope is still working in a field hospital and people are frustrated because they think they should have more certainty about the future.”

In the video below, Perspectives Daily takes a look at Pope Francis’ address to the Curia and what is ahead for Pope Francis for the remainder of the year.

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