By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
On the evening of March 13, 2013, Pope Francis stepped onto the central loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Standing before him was a crowd of thousands of people from around the world who had gathered in Saint Peter’s Square to welcome the newly elected Bishop of Rome for the first time.
“Now, we take up this journey,” the Holy Father said to the crowd. “A journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.”
It has been ten years since Pope Francis spoke these words and was elected as the first Jesuit and the first Latin American successor of Saint Peter.
Throughout the last decade, Pope Francis’s pontificate has been shaped by his love and affinity for the poor and the most vulnerable members of society.
The Holy Father’s choice for his pontifical name was inspired by his friend, the late Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who was sitting next to him when he was elected. Hummes whispered, “don’t forget the poor,” to the newly elected pontiff, which led him to select Francis as his name, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the “poor man of Assisi.”
Shortly after his election, the Holy Father said, “How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor.”
Pope Francis has provided help with housing, laundry service, haircuts, meals, and medical care for the poor and invited them to the Vatican for museum tours.
Pope Francis recently said, “We must not forget this: the Church is not a home for some, it is not selective. The holy faithful people of God are: everyone.” Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has lived out this mission through his example.
He has washed the feet of women, migrants, the mentally disabled, and prisoners and met with the marginalized, the sick, and the poor. Pope Francis has also visited minorities and victims of violence on international trips.
The Holy Father has made it a priority to bring attention to the difficulties endured by migrants and the hardships faced by those who have been forced to leave their homes. As Cardinal Michael Czerny said, “The theme of migration one could call a ‘sacrament’ of Pope Francis’s magisterium.” His first papal trip outside of Rome was to the island of Lampedusa, where he paid tribute to the plight of thousands of migrants and refugees who fled poverty and conflict and made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
As Crux Senior Correspondent Elise Ann Allen wrote, “Those perceived as occupying the lowest rung on the ladder, those who cannot advocate for themselves, are and always have been among his top priorities, and they likely will continue to be well into the future.”
Another hallmark of Pope Francis’s pontificate has been his push for pastoral conversion and his call for an outward-facing church with priests who are “shepherds with ‘the smell of the sheep.’”
On November 24, 2013, Pope Francis published the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which is one of the longest papal documents ever issued. George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, described Evangelii Gaudium as the Holy Father’s “grand strategy document of his pontificate.”
The document set forth Pope Francis’s agenda to “encourage and guide the whole church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality.” Evangelii Gaudium emphasized the need to focus on the missionary role of church institutions, to engage with and understand the church as “the entire people of God,” and to bring the poor into both society and the church.
Such priorities reflect the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged Catholics around the world to respond to the “signs of the times.”
Further influenced by Vatican II, synodality, which is understood as a global church in which decisions about the church and its mission are made through collective dialogue and the exchange of ideas, stands as the “capstone” of Pope Francis’s papacy.
As Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago said, “John Paul II told us what we should do. Benedict told us why we should do it. And Francis is saying, ‘Do it.’”
The Holy Father views synodality as “the hinge on which the church should operate,” according to Allen. It is, she wrote, “the natural trajectory for implementing the vision of the Second Vatican Council, ensuring that the church is open, inclusive, and primarily, takes its cues from the people.”
As part of this objective, the Holy Father has encouraged greater involvement of laypeople and the role of women in the church, particularly through the 2022 Apostolic Constitution, which reformed the organization and structure of the Roman Curia.
There have been numerous achievements during the first ten years of Pope Francis’s pontificate.
As the first pope to make a papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula, Pope Francis has made significant strides to reach out to Islamic countries to promote interreligious dialogue and fraternity.
To advance these priorities, on October 3, 2020, the Holy Father released his third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers). In this “social encyclical,” which charts a course for building a more just and peaceful world, Pope Francis wrote, “It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women.”
Cindy Wooden, Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service, summarized the first decade of Pope Francis’s pontificate as follows: “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.”
But it is far too early to tell how significant the papacy of Pope Francis will be for the future of the Catholic Church. “This is a pontificate of fruits,” Father Antonio Spadaro, one of Pope Francis’s closest friends and aides, said. But, it is “above all a pontificate of seeds… With time, these seeds will grow, evolve, and mature. We’ll understand later what the fruits that have been planted during this time are.”
Pope Francis’s historic milestones and achievements, his loving embrace of the poor and vulnerable, and his welcoming outreach to all of God’s children during the first ten years of his pontificate will continue to encourage and invigorate the faithful for generations to come.