10 years ago, Pope Francis shook up the church, Now he’s cementing his legacy

When Pope Francis made the first foreign trip of his papacy, to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day (WYD) in 2013, he urged young people to make a “mess” in their local churches, to shake things up even if it ruffled the feathers of their bishops.

Aug 11, 2023

Pope Francis waves to people from his popemobile along the Copacabana beachfront as he arrives for the Stations of the Cross procession in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, July 26, 2013.

When Pope Francis made the first foreign trip of his papacy, to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day (WYD) in 2013, he urged young people to make a “mess” in their local churches, to shake things up even if it ruffled the feathers of their bishops.

As he embarked recently on another edition of WYD, in Lisbon, Portugal, Francis has in many ways taken his own advice to heart. After 10 years as Pope, Francis is accelerating his reform agenda and making revolutionary changes in personnel and policy that are definitely shaking things up.

Unencumbered by the shadow of Pope Benedict XVI who died seven months ago, and despite recovering from a second intestinal surgery in as many years, the 86-yearold Francis is opening a frenetic second half of the year with his Portugal visit. He seems aware that he has a limited sweet spot of time to solidify the changes he believes are necessary for the 21st century Church, and is looking to the next generation of faithful and leaders to execute them.

“The sense I get is that this is the consolidation phase of the pontificate,” said papal biographer, Austen Ivereigh. “He’s laying the basis now, laying the ground, for the future.”

And no better place to put it on display than at a WYD. The international rally, which St John Paul II launched in 1986 to galvanise young Catholics in their faith, drew close to one million people for the first post-pandemic event of its kind. Francis’ perennial social justice concerns about climate change, social inequality and fraternity, as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine, are expected to be major themes.

Beyond Portugal, though, Francis’ multifold strategy for laying the groundwork for the future is coming together and will hit significant marks in the coming months.

His global canvassing of rank-and-file Catholics about their vision for the future comes to fruition this October with a big synod at the Vatican. The meeting is intended to give direction on such hot-button issues as the place of LGBTQ+ Catholics and women in the Church, and for the first time will feature women and young people voting on proposals alongside bishops.

“I really think that for Pope Francis, he felt that ‘OK, now it’s mature’ and it would be good really to involve all the members, all the people in the synod as members” with the right to vote, said Sr Nathalie Becquart, who is one of the key synod organisers.

To then implement the vision that emerges from the synod, Francis has been naming a slew of unusually young bishops for key archdioceses — in his native Buenos Aires, Madrid and Brussels, among others. At the same time, he’s elevated several cardinals in their 50s — and in some cases their 40s — including the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon who organised the recent WYD.

Putting such young clerics in such important positions ensures a generation’s worth of likeminded leadership in the Vatican and archdioceses around the world. While not all are cookie-cutter proteges of Francis, many are seen as similarly pastorally minded and thus more game to implement his reforms, especially as the older generation of bishops and cardinals dies out.

After Francis is gone, the youngest of these new cardinals will have some three decades’ worth of local leadership and conclave votes to select future popes, suggesting a generational and ideological shift in the Church leadership is very much underway.

Francis’ most important young “legacy” appointment was that of the Vatican’s new doctrinal czar, Argentine Cardinal-elect Victor Manuel Fernandez, 61. Francis’ theological ghostwriter ran into Vatican problems in the past over questions about his doctrinal orthodoxy, and his appointment sent shockwaves through the conservative and traditionalist wings of the Church.

Fernandez sees his appointment as part of Francis’ longer-term agenda. “He is proposing a more inclusive Church, more respectful of different ways of living, even of thinking,” Fernandez said in an interview.

Portuguese Cardinal-elect Americo Aguiar, who was in charge of WYD, is another young churchman who also understands his appointment as part of a generational turning point for the Catholic hierarchy.

At age 49 he will become the secondyoungest member of the College of Cardinals when he is installed Sept 30. He is just six months older than the current youngest cardinal, whom Francis elevated this time last year: Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, head of the Church in Mongolia, where Francis will travel to at the end of August.

“My reading of it is that this has to do with young people, it has to do with youth, it has to do with Portugal, it has to do with WYD, it has to do with all of that,” Aguiar said in an interview. “I think that his objective and his underlining was exactly to send a signal to the young people, to every young person who is preparing for the day, whether in Portugal or in the world, to feel identified with this decision.”

Francis said as much in his monthly prayer intentions for August, this time dedicated to the Lisbon event.

“In Lisbon, I would like to see a seed for the world’s future,” Francis said. “A world where love is at the centre, where we can sense that we are sisters and brothers.”

His wish in many ways echoed his words at the 2013 WYD in Rio, which now seem prescient in outlining many of the key pastoral messages Francis has emphasised over the past decade. Delivering a spontaneous, off-the-cuff exhortation to a gathering of Argentine pilgrims that was organised at the last minute, Francis urged the young to get out into the streets, spread their faith and “make a mess.”

“I want to see the Church get closer to the people,” Francis said then, speaking in his native Spanish. “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”

Realising the radical nature of his message, Francis apologised to the bishops for what was about to come, even though in the 10 years since, he has only gone further than anyone could have imagined at the time.

“The true reform of the Church, you know, is not a revolution bringing something completely from outside,” said Becquart, the French nun, as she reflected on Francis’ agenda. “It’s a path of change that is a way to unfold tradition, but in a very dynamic way.” -- America Magazine

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