Pope Francis constantly reminds us that the most important task is to proclaim the Gospel. 2019 saw him doing exactly that, through 41 General Audiences (reflecting on the Our Father and Acts of the Apostles), 56 Angelus and Regina Caeli addresses, over 60 public homilies, and 44 homilies delivered during his private morning Masses in the Casa Santa Marta. All this without counting the messages, letters, documents, interviews, and about 260 speeches, delivered in Rome and on his Apostolic Journeys abroad.
Certainty not confusion
Throughout the year, the Pope has reminded us of one consoling certainty: that God loves us and that, in Jesus, He gave His life for us. This is the central message of Pope Francis’ entire mission, as expressed in Evangelii gaudium.
He invites us to remember the “simple and robust faith” of mothers and grandmothers, which gave, and continues to give, “strength and constancy to go forward”. The kind of “home-made faith, which goes unnoticed, but which gradually builds the kingdom of God”. A faith that is never confused, because it is based on the essentials of the Gospel.
Faith not idolatry
In an increasingly pagan society, Pope Francis constantly encourages us to turn to the One True God: “Idolatry is not just entering a pagan temple and worshipping a statue”, he says, “Idolatry is an attitude of the heart“. Idols may have changed their names, but they are present today more than ever. Money, success, career, self-realization, pleasure: all these idols promise happiness, but fail to give it. On the contrary, they enslave us. Pope Francis reminds us how “idols promise life, but take it away… while the true God does not ask for life, but gives it”.
Self-correction not self-justification
Like Jesus, Pope Francis is not afraid to admonish, especially those who consider themselves better than others. He calls this “the religion of the ego”, practiced by those who claim to be Catholic, “but have forgotten to be Christian and human”. They have forgotten that worshipping God “always passes through love of neighbor”.
Pope Francis warns how “the Pharisee” is always ready to rise up in all of us, presumptuous and self-justifying.
Faith, insists the Pope, means having the humility to let ourselves be corrected.
Meekness not rigidity
Also like Jesus, the words of Pope Francis can produce a dual effect: some hear them and are converted, others become more hardened than before.
On the flight back from Africa in September, the Pope said he is unafraid of schism: “Today we have many schools of rigidity within the Church”, he said. These are not schisms “but pseudo-schisms which will end badly”, because behind this rigidity “there is not the sanctity of the Gospel”.
Pope Francis asks us to respond to evil with good, to accompany “with meekness” those who fear the Church is no longer Catholic, claiming the Pope said things he never did. No dogma has been changed, he reminds us, no devotion has been cancelled. The Pope simply encourages us to move forward in a spirit of welcome and mercy, to walk united as a people, so that the development of doctrine may be united with true Tradition always.
Putting Christ at the centre
During the Synod on the Amazon in October, Pope Francis constantly repeated the word “conversion”, a concept that found its place in the Final Document of the Assembly. In reality, the Synod asked for a fourfold conversion: synodal, because the Church must walk as one, not divided or alone; cultural, because we must know how to speak to different cultures; ecological, because selfish exploitation of the environment leads to the destruction of peoples; pastoral, because the proclamation of the Gospel is urgent.
At the basis of these four conversions is conversion to the living Gospel, which is Jesus. True conversion means putting oneself aside, says Pope Francis, putting Christ at the center and letting the Holy Spirit be the protagonist of our lives.
The “Protection of Minors in the Church” summit in February was historic in many ways: it brought together Church leaders from all continents, and with courage and transparency, it focused on ways to combat the scourge of child abuse in the Church. In his closing remarks, Pope Francis stressed the fact that abuse is “a universal problem, tragically present almost everywhere and affecting everyone”. He cited data showing how the majority of abuse is carried out by family members and educators, in homes, schools, sports and church facilities, not to mention through sex tourism and human trafficking.
“The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church”, he said, “for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility”.
Abolishing “pontifical secrecy”
With the Motu proprio, Vos estis lux mundi, the Pope established new procedures for reporting abuse, harassment and violence, and for ensuring that bishops and religious superiors are held accountable for their actions. The document includes the obligation for clerics and religious to report abuse, while every diocese must provide itself with a system that is easily accessible to the public, to receive such reports.
This year, Pope Francis abolished “pontifical secrecy” for these cases and changed the rule regarding the crime of child pornography: the possession and distribution of pornographic images involving minors up to the age of 14 had already been among the “delicta graviora” — the most serious crimes; with the new regulations, the age has been raised to 18.
Reforming the Roman Curia
The Council of Cardinals continued their work on reforming the Roman Curia, with the purpose of ensuring all Church structures are more missionary. A draft of the new Apostolic Constitution, with the provisional title Praedicate evangelium, “Proclaim the Gospel”, is currently under revision.
At the end of the year, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who had been in office since 2005. With a Motu proprio, the Pope has limited the position to a five-year term, which can be renewed if necessary.
Reforming the Vatican economy
Reform in the financial field also progressed during 2019, in terms of both transparency and cost containment. Pope Francis renewed the Statutes of the Vatican Institute for Religious Works (IOR), and introduced the figure of the External Auditor for accounts auditing, according to international standards, on a permanent basis.
The Pope appointed Jesuit Fr Juan Antonio Guerrero Alves as Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, and authorized a Vatican judiciary investigation into various people in the service of the Holy See, regarding certain financial transactions.
Referring to “Peter’s Pence”, the Pope specified that it is “good administration” to make money received profitable, and not “put it in a drawer”. All investments must be “ethical”, however, so that money is always at the service of evangelization and the poor.
Sunday of the Word of God
With an Apostolic Letter Aperuit illis, dated 30 September, Pope Francis established the Sunday of the Word of God, a special day to encourage all the faithful to read and meditate on the Bible because, as Saint Jerome said, “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. The annual celebration will take place on the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (the first being on 26 January 2020).
The Nativity scene
On 1 December, in the town of Greccio, Pope Francis signed another Apostolic Letter, Admirabile signum, in which he invites us to rediscover the beautiful tradition of the Christmas crib. “The depiction of Jesus’ birth is itself a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God”, writes the Pope. “The nativity scene is like a living Gospel rising up from the pages of sacred Scripture”. “Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close He is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition”.
Pope Francis never tires of denouncing anti-Christian persecution, reminding us that, today, there are more martyrs than in the early days of Christianity. In January, the Supreme Court of Pakistan definitively acquitted Asia Bibi of the unjust accusation of blasphemy, for which she had been sentenced to death. A Catholic mother of five children, Asia Bibi had been in prison since 2009. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had followed the case with great discretion. When he met one of her daughters, Pope Francis told her he thought of her mother often and prayed for her.
On 21 April, an attack by Islamic extremists against Christian Churches in Sri Lanka caused the death of over 250 people as they were celebrating Easter. The Pope made an appeal on the very same day. During the year, he also denounced attacks against other religions, like the one against a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 15 March, which killed more than 50 people.
Defending the family and life
On 25 March, Pope Francis visited Loreto. There he reiterated that, for today’s world especially, “the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman assumes an essential importance and mission”. The Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the UN, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, referenced the Pope’s words on gender ideology, calling it “a step backwards” for humanity.
Pope Francis continues to defend life from conception to its natural end. In 2019, he spoke out in defence of 42 year-old Vincent Lambert, left to die in a state of minimal consciousness.
“Let us not build a civilization that eliminates people whose lives we believe are no longer worth living”, said the Pope. “Every life has value, always”: whether it be the life of an unborn child, someone suffering because of hunger, violence, or injustice, whether it be the sick, the elderly, or migrants who risk dying in search of a better future.
Justice is not selective. It is not for some human categories only. Justice is universal.
Encouraging young people
2019 saw the publication of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Christus vivit, the fruit of the Synod on Young People, held in the Vatican in October 2018. The document opens with the words: “Christ is alive! He is our hope, and in a wonderful way He brings youth to our world, and everything He touches becomes young, new, full of life. The very first words, then, that I would like to say to every young Christian are these: Christ is alive and He wants you to be alive!”
The Pope asks the Lord “to free the Church from those who would make her grow old, encase her in the past, hold her back or keep her at a standstill. But let us also ask Him to free her from another temptation: that of thinking she is young because she accepts everything the world offers her, thinking that she is renewed because she sets her message aside and acts like everybody else. No! The Church is young when she is herself”.
In the Post-Synodal document, Pope Francis proposes “paths of fraternity” to live the faith, avoiding the temptation “to withdraw into small groups”. He invites young people to build “social friendship, where everyone works for the common good”. He challenges them to “serve the poor, be protagonists of the revolution of charity and service, capable of resisting the pathologies of consumerism and superficial individualism”.
Pope Francis went on seven apostolic journeys in 2019. He visited eleven countries on four continents, making it a record year in terms of visits outside of Italy. The year began with World Youth Day in Panama, and continued in the United Arab Emirates where the Pope signed a historic Document on Human Fraternity with the Great Imam of al Azhar. In Morocco, he reiterated the importance of inter-religious dialogue. In Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Romania, he encouraged Christian unity. In Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, he spoke out in defence of the poor and Creation. In Thailand, he appealed for the promotion of women’s and children’s rights. In Japan, his message centred on peace, and he repeated that both the use and the possession of nuclear weapons is immoral.
The Pope’s visits in Italy included Camerino, where he embraced earthquake victims in the Marches Region. In Loreto, he signed the Post-Synodal Exhortation to Youth, and in Greccio, the town where Saint Francis set up the first nativity scene, the Pope signed his letter concerning the Christmas crib.
Saints and Blesseds
2019 saw numerous canonizations and beatifications, including many martyrs from all continents and ideologies. Several were killed “in hatred of the faith” during the Spanish Civil War. They died forgiving their murderers. Others, like the seven bishops of the Greek-Catholic Church in Romania beatified by Pope Francis in Blaj, were martyrs of the communist regime. Others still, like Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli and his companions, were victims of right-wing dictatorships. Lay people too were proclaimed saints: like Margherita Bays of Switzerland, or the “saints next door” who lived their vocation in the family, amidst everyday challenges. The list included a cardinal too: John Henry Newman, an Anglican who converted to the Catholic faith in 1845.
A priest for fifty years
2019 was also the year Pope Francis celebrated 50 years of his priesthood. His vocation story dates back to 21 September 1953, the Feast of Saint Matthew. It was then, during Confession, that the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio had a profound experience of God’s mercy. Since then, as Pope, he has described priests as men living among people with the merciful heart of Jesus.
Today is the time of mercy, he says.
The Church understands this more and more: Pope Saint John XXIII took an important step in this direction, one that was continued by his successors. Inspired by Saint Faustina Kowalska, Pope Saint John Paul II instituted Divine Mercy Sunday.
On Divine Mercy Sunday 2019, Pope Francis confirmed how “all of us need mercy”. He invited us to “draw near to Jesus and touch His wounds in our suffering brothers and sisters. Jesus’ wounds are a treasure: mercy issues from them”, he said.
(Source: Sergio Centofanti, deputy director of the Editorial Directorate at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, Vatican News)