Pope Francis in 2024: The synod, health concerns, the China deal and more

Pope Francis is looking ahead to the Jubilee Year 2025 as “a pilgrim of hope”.

Jan 12, 2024

By Gerard O’Connell
Pope Francis is looking ahead to the Jubilee Year 2025 as “a pilgrim of hope”. In his Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” message (an annual address “to the city of Rome and the world”) he mentioned the jubilee and expressed the hope that 2024 would be “a time of preparation for the Holy Year” and “an opportunity for the conversion of hearts, for the rejection of war and the embrace of peace, and for joyfully responding to the Lord’s call.”

He again spoke about the jubilee at the end-of-year vespers in St Peter’s Basilica on December 31, which suggests that it could serve as his lodestar for this new year. Although Francis is now 87 years old and one of the oldest popes in history to lead the Catholic Church, a glance at his agenda for 2024 reveals that he has no intention of slowing down or reducing his engagements. On the contrary, he has confided to friends that “the closer one is to the finishing line, the faster one must go.” As for resignation, he said in a recent interview that he had not considered the idea.

The Pope’s health
Francis continues to have mobility problems due to medical issues with his right knee and hip, but unlike last year, he is now able to walk short distances. He is in good health for a man of his age, according to Dr Sergio Alfieri, the surgeon who operated on him at Rome’s Gemelli hospital in July 2021 and June 2023.

Speaking of the Pope’s heart, lungs and abdomen, the doctor confidently told the press after the June operation, “He does not have infirmities.”

Dr. Alfieri added that the Pope’s mental faculties are those “of a man of 60.” Several persons who met Francis after his end-of-November bout of bronchitis and in recent weeks told America that the Pope is in good form again. Therefore, barring accidents or downturns, he seems set for a full year of activity.

Opening the new year
The first Latin American Pope opened the new year by presiding at Mass in St Peter’s Basilica for the World Day of Peace on Jan 1, the feast of Mary, Mother of God, in the presence of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See and a congregation of 7,000 people from around the world. He had already published his Message for the World Day of Peace, in which he focused on the important subject of “Artificial Intelligence and Peace.”

Argentina’s first female saint
On Feb 11, Francis will canonise Argentina’s first woman saint, María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, popularly known as “Mama Antula” and considered “the mother of the nation.” Born in Santiago del Estero in northern Argentina in 1730, she met and began working with the Jesuits at an early age. After the order’s expulsion from Spain and its colonies in the Americas in 1767, she kept Ignatian spirituality alive throughout the country, walking 3,000 miles until she reached Buenos Aires, where she founded charity programmes for women and children and a house of spiritual exercises before she died in 1799. She also promoted the idea of an independent Argentina, which came about in 1816.

“Mama Antula is considered the mother of the nation,” the Argentine bishop Santiago Olivera, who is responsible for her cause, told OSV News. “She was a strong, brave woman who believed in Argentina. She was committed to the country, and believed that knowing Christ would transform society.”

Some think Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, could attend the canonisation ceremony in Rome and have his first meeting with Pope Francis. They spoke by phone soon after he took office, and the president then formally invited Francis to visit his homeland.

Foreign travel
Francis has already visited 61 countries on 44 journeys outside Italy since becoming pope. In interviews with Telam, an Argentine news agency, on Oct 16 and Mexico’s N+ television on Dec 12, he said he intends to continue his foreign travels in 2024 and revealed his desire to visit Belgium, Argentina and Papua New Guinea.

He intends to go to Belgium, a country he visited as a Jesuit provincial, for the 600th anniversary of the Catholic University of Louvain. While the Vatican has not yet announced the date, an informed source told America it could be at the end of July.

America has also learned that plans are also underway for a 10-day visit at the end of August to four countries in Asia — Indonesia, Singapore, Timor Leste and the aforementioned Papua New Guinea. Francis had planned his trip to Asia in 2020 but had to postpone it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Timor Leste is the most Catholic country in Asia — 97 per cent of its 1.4 million population is Catholic — while 26 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s population of 10 million is Catholic. Francis has long wanted to visit both of these countries on the world’s periphery. Indonesia, on the other hand, is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and Singapore has been pressing hard for a visit.

It had been expected that Francis would finally visit Argentina, his homeland, this year, but the complicated economic and political situation in the country under the new president has called that trip into question.

There is also the possibility that Francis could visit Vietnam this year, as relations between the Holy See and Vietnam have made significant progress. For the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese government last year allowed the Holy See to open an office and have a resident representative in the country. Vietnam’s president visited the Pope last July and in December announced that he had sent a formal letter inviting Pope Francis to visit the country.

Sources say Francis would like to take the president up on the invitation, but the Vatican would prefer the papal visit to take place after the establishment of full diplomatic relations. A senior Vatican source said to America that diplomatic relations could happen quickly if the Vietnamese government so desires, as happened with Myanmar, where such relations were established months before Francis visited that country.

French President Emmanuel Macron has invited Francis to come to Paris for the reopening of the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral on Dec 8, 2024, but the Pope has not yet given any indication that he will take up this invitation.

Relations with China
An important question that Francis has to decide on by October 2024 relates to the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement that was signed in Beijing on Sept 22, 2018, regarding the nomination of bishops in mainland China. The Holy See and China renewed this agreement in 2020 and 2022. This year, the two sides will have to decide whether to renew the agreement for another two years, to make it permanent or to introduce changes to it.

The Synod on Synodality
In what will be a culminating moment of his 10-year effort to reform and lead the Catholic Church and its 1.3 billion members on to a new missionary path, Pope Francis will preside over the second and final session of the Synod on Synodality in October 2024. While the first session in October 2023 lasted almost four weeks, some in Rome expect this second session to be shorter, although a decision has not yet been made on the length of the synod.

Vatican nominations and new bishops
Over the next 12 months, Francis is expected to make several important personnel changes in the Roman Curia and in dioceses worldwide, including in the United States. Changes at the senior levels of the Roman Curia include the appointments of the major penitentiary to succeed the Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, who turns 80 on Sept 15, and of a new prefect for the Dicastery for Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life to replace the Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who will turn 77 on April 24. The Brazilian will likely be succeeded by the Spanish Cardinal Ángel Fernández Artime, SDB, the current superior general of the Salesian order. Changes are also expected at some mid-level positions in the curia, including in the Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Francis will also appoint bishops to many dioceses worldwide, including to some important archdioceses, including Boston, where Cardinal Seán O’Malley turns 80 on June 29, and Bombay (Mumbai), India, where Cardinal Oswald Gracias reaches the age of 80 on Dec 24. Both have been members of the Pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisors since he established that body soon after his election. He is expected to appoint two new cardinals to the nine-member council.

The Jesuit pope will also appoint nuncios — his ambassadors — to the Holy See’s diplomatic missions in at least 10 countries in the coming year.

Another consistory
Francis has held consistories to make new cardinals almost every year since his election, and he could decide to hold his 10th consistory before the end of 2024, perhaps around the time of the October synod or for the opening of the Jubilee Year. The total number of cardinals under the age of 80 with a right to vote in a conclave to elect the next pope will have decreased to at least 119 by December 2024, which is just below the ceiling of 120 established by Pope Paul VI for a conclave. Since 13 electors will reach the age of 80 in 2025, the Pope could create that number of electors, or more, if he so wishes this year.

The Jubilee Year
Francis is expected to initiate the Jubilee Year 2025 just before Christmas by opening the Holy Door of St Peter’s Basilica in a rite that dates back to the year 1500. The exact date for the opening has yet to be announced. It will be his second jubilee; the first was the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, which he opened in Bangui, the capital of the war-torn Central African Republic, on Nov 29, 2015. Vatican organisers for Jubilee 2025 expect it to attract around 30 million pilgrims to the eternal city to participate in the event, and much work is being done in the city of Rome in preparation for their arrival. --America Magazine

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