In a birthday mood, with his 87th birthday this Sunday (17th), Pope Francis reaches the end of an intense 2023, due to the pace of work despite his fragile health and the clashes he decided to fight, with results that were not always pleasant for him.
The year has already started with a great event. The funeral, in January, of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, which ended the unusual period in which two popes lived together inside the Vatican. From then on, there was a succession of milestones: the intensification of his diplomatic activism for peace; the appointment of the largest number of cardinals of his pontificate and other changes in the Roman Curia; the holding of a questioned Synod of Bishops and a new text on climate emergency.
All this and five more international trips and two hospital stays, including surgery with general anesthesia, in addition to other recurring discomforts. There were still attacks coming from now president Javier Milei during the campaign in Argentina and not even Francisco escaped artificial intelligence – his fake image wearing a fashionable white coat went viral and sparked warnings about the reach of new tools. He even called for an international treaty to regulate the technology.
At the same time, 2023, in which he completed a decade of papacy, was the year in which Jorge Bergoglio revealed his reaction to the fierce opposition he faces from sectors of the clergy, especially the ultraconservative wing that is making noise in the United States.
“It is possible to describe 2023 as a year in which the pope showed himself ready to fight without restrictions”, he tells Sheet Vaticanist Christopher White, correspondent in Rome for the American newspaper National Catholic Reporter. “For two reasons: the death of Benedict XVI, which left him freer, and his health conditions, which made it clear, I imagine even to him, that the clock is ticking.”
From mid-year onwards, Bergoglio put his foot on the accelerator. At the beginning of July, he appointed his compatriot Víctor Manuel Fernández, 61, as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a body with the function of safeguarding the foundations of Catholicism and which had Joseph Ratzinger, before becoming Benedict 16, as head for more than 20 years, under John Paul 2O.
One of the pope’s closest theological advisors, Fernández shares Francis’ ideas about the Church. He is someone who takes contemporary issues into account and prefers dialogue to condemnation. Author of a book on the benefits of kissing, he is considered by critics to be too condescending on topics such as same-sex marriage.
Less than ten days later, the pontiff announced the appointment of 21 cardinals, of which 18 are under 80 years old and therefore entitled to vote in the next conclave. It was the largest number of nominees of the pope’s nine consistories. In addition to Fernández, religious from countries such as Colombia, Tanzania and South Sudan were chosen.
“It was a clear sign that the pope, after ten years, was very interested in having his own government in power and in taking every opportunity to leave his mark on the college of cardinals, selecting those who will one day choose his successor.” , says White.
The Vatican leader highlights another moment that, for him, confirms Bergoglio’s willingness not to waste any more time. In October, shortly before the start of the Synod of Bishops, one of the pope’s most ambitious moves, Francis responded, publicly, to questions from five conservative cardinals, addressed to him in the format called “dubia” (doubts, in Latin) . In one of the excerpts, Francis left open the possibility of priests giving blessings to same-sex couples.
“We’ve had several examples in the past of cardinals proposing these dubia to the pope. But then him responding and publishing it took it to another level. It’s as if he was saying ‘I know how to play this game too,'” says White.
One of the authors of the dubia is the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, 75, from the traditionalist wing of the Church. His name sparked another reaction from Francisco at the end of November. As revealed by an Italian newspaper, the Vatican is practically evicting Burke from his apartment in Rome by demanding that he start paying market-rate rent or release the property in 2024.
Behind the scenes, it is said that Francis considers him a source of disunity among Catholics. Burke sees the Synod’s consultation process, alongside laypeople and women, as a slogan factory capable of leading the Church into schism.
The most important ecclesiastical event of the year, the Synod of Synodality, as it is called, had its first assembly throughout October and will have its final stage next year. The document from the first meeting discouraged both conservatives and progressives, as it indicated greater openness to women and at the same time left aside LGBTQIA+ Catholics and other issues.
Only after the next stage of the Synod will the Pope publish new guidelines for Catholics, which could happen in the first half of 2025. The risk, observers say, is that this long process, which began in 2021, could be suspended before the end. , in the event of the death of the pontiff.
Despite two hospitalizations this year and the cancellation of his trip to Dubai, for COP28, due to lung inflammation, Francisco said last week that he feels fine, but that his health still needs prayers. “Old age doesn’t come alone and it doesn’t disguise itself. You have to know how to accept its gifts,” he told a Mexican TV channel.
What is certain is that the year ends with the air of a conclave surrounding the Vatican, and the Pope demonstrates lucidity about his own finitude. In the same interview, he said that he gave instructions for his funeral to have a simpler ceremony and revealed his desire to be buried outside the Vatican, in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, in Rome.
Given his advanced age and weakened health, there are doubts about how much of the dynamism seen this year will remain in 2024. His travel schedule, which took him to five destinations in 2023, one more than 2022, should be the first to suffer cuts. Francisco stated that only Belgium is confirmed for now.
Intentions to fly to Polynesia and Argentina are pending. The visit to his homeland, still unprecedented as pope, was announced as a great moment of his pontificate and gained new meaning after he was insulted by Milei and in a way forgiven him when he said that campaign speeches should not be so taken seriously. It remains to be seen whether he will have the physical strength to do so.