The first rays of dawn had barely begun to rise over a cloudy St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican. But at 6:20 a.m. on Sunday, May 5, Pope Francis was already on his way to Rome’s Fiumicino Airport where, 40 minutes later, he would embark on a two-hour flight to the Bulgarian capital of Sophia.
It was an early start to the 82-year-old pope’s latest foreign journey, this one a three-day visit to three cities in Bulgaria and neighbouring North Macedonia.
Francis participated in no less than ten public events, delivering a dozen talks and homilies during the trip. It would be just minutes before 8 p.m. when his return flight landed safely in Rome on the following Tuesday.
After stopping at the papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in the centre of the city to give thanks for the journey in the chapel containing the famed Byzantine icon of Mary known as Salus Populi Romani, he was back at the Vatican at his Santa Marta Residence.
For a man of his age, one would have expected the pope to rest up a bit – or at least take a mental health day – before jumping back into his regular schedule of activities. But not Francis.
The next morning he was among the crowds in St. Peter’s Square for his customary Wednesday general audience.
Then on Thursday morning he met with two large groups at the Vatican – one a prayer gathering with some 500 Italian gypsies or Rom and Sinti peoples – before going to Rome’s Cathedral-Basilica of St. John Lateran that evening for a conference with the pastoral leaders of the diocese that stretched beyond two-hours and at which he spoke off the cuff for more than 40 minutes.
Pope Francis has not slackened the pace. Nor has he shown any indication that he intends to do so. On the contrary it looks as if, once again, he’s putting his foot on the accelerator and actually increasing his pastoral activity as Bishop of Rome.
Foreign travels: Mission of peace
Francis is a man on a mission. It is two-fold in scope: to the world and to the Church. One of the main ways he is trying to achieve the first part of this mission, its ad extra focus, is through his travels to places that allow him access to a wide variety of people well beyond his Catholic flock.
The May 5-7 visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia was the 29th foreign journey in his six-year pontificate.
That’s five more than Benedict XVI made in his entire eight years as pope. And it took the globetrotting John Paul II a little more than seven years to make as many trips abroad, though the sainted Polish pope’s visits were much lengthier and more elaborate than those Francis generally makes.
But John Paul was a youthful and athletic man of 58 when he was elected in 1978, while Francis was already 76 years old, and hobbled by joint and hip problems, when he assumed the papacy.
More astonishingly, this recent trip abroad was Francis’ fourth since the beginning of 2019. There are three more such voyages already confirmed for the rest of the year – Romania at the end of May, three southern African nations (Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius) in September and Japan in November.
A visit to Uganda in July to mark the 50th anniversary of SECAM (the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar) was cancelled late last February.
But there is still the possibility that another papal trip could be added to the 2019 line-up. In April the pope expressed hope “that soon, by God’s grace” he and the Archbishop of Canterbury would be able to make a joint visit to South Sudan.
With seven foreign trips, and possibly an eighth, this will be the busiest travel year yet for Pope Francis. He has usually made five trips abroad each year, though he made six in 2016.
Most of these have been to the global south or the peripheries. He has generally avoided the world’s centres of power and wealth, with only a few exceptions, such as his visit to the United States in 2015.
Francis’ trips throughout Europe mainly have been limited to the Old Continent’s poorest, smallest and most marginalized countries. Again, there have been exceptions, such as his visits to international organizations in France (European Parliament) and Switzerland (World Council of Churches).
He has also participated in global Catholic events in a couple of major European cities, such as Krakow (World Youth Day) and Dublin (World Meeting of Families).
But mostly the Jesuit pope has travelled to places where Catholics and even Christians of any denomination are a minority.
It is part of his strategy to build peace and trust, especially among people of all faiths, at a time when the world is showing dangerous signs of rising sectarianism, nationalism and fearful resentment of those who are different.
The opposition in Roman collars
But the most important part of Pope Francis’ mission is towards the Church. This is its focus ad intra and it involves an ambitious program of reforming the mentality, ethos and even structures of Roman Catholicism.
The blueprint for this aspect of his mission is the 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)
It offers a vision of a Church that is radically brought back to conformity with the challenging simplicity of the Gospel.
It is a rejection of a whole array of non-essential elements that have helped create over many centuries a Church culture and structures that are often more rooted in clerical power and control than the words and example of Jesus Christ.
The document and the vision of Church that it embodies have not been universally embraced by the holy People of God. The ordained men – notably priests and bishops – would seem to be, proportionate to their numbers, those Catholics who have been most critical or dismissive of the apostolic exhortation.
Young priests, especially, present one of the biggest challenges to Francis’ reforms. They just are not with him. Most of the men under the age of 50 have been formed in a clerical ethos that this pope is trying to eradicate.
Obviously, there are exceptions. But particularly those who were attracted to priestly ministry during the previous pontificate are the clergymen who appear to be putting up the biggest obstacles to Francis’ efforts to change the mentality of global Catholicism.
The pope will ordain a number of young men (and a few not so young) to the presbyterate (the priesthood) on “Good Shepherd” Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Easter) in St. Peter’s Basilica. And it will give him another opportunity to directly address those who are consecrated for sacramental and governmental leadership in the Church.
Francis has also faced opposition at the Vatican to his efforts to reform the Roman Curia.
Those efforts will be finalized in a document that is currently being reviewed by bishops, religious superiors and theologians who are extraneous to the curia. The text should be ready for publication by in the next weeks or months.
A testimony to the strength of the opposition in Rome was the way Francis and his closest aides released the recent “motu proprio” (personal directive by a Pope) on procedures for reporting sexual abuse.
Usually, the Holy See Press Office gives about a week’s notice for the release of a major document. But this time the text was released suddenly without even a day’s notification.
The reason, say some, was to keep formidable forces in the Vatican bureaucracy from torpedoing the document’s release.
Consistory for the creation of new cardinals
Finally, another manifestation of the sense of urgency in this pontificate is Francis’ attentiveness to ensuring the number of cardinals who are under 80 years of age and eligible to vote in a conclave are kept at the maximum level.
There has been a lot of talk in Rome about the likelihood that the pope will hold another consistory, probably on June 28, the day before Rome’s patronal feast of Saints Peter and Paul.
If he wants to keep within or around Paul VI’s number of 120 electors, Francis will have six slots to replace those who will age out in the next three or four months.
But he could push beyond this arbitrary ceiling – either modestly or by setting a completely new number. If he chooses the latter he would likely do that with a formal document to update the current procedures for the election of the Roman Pontiff, a text that would also include precise protocols for the resignation of the Bishop of Rome.
If Francis creates six new cardinals he will have named 62 or 63 electors. But among them there are some like Gerhard Müller who can in no way be considered “Francis bishops” or be relied upon to vote for a pope who will continue Francis’ vision.
However, there are others who got their red hats from John Paul II or Benedict XVI who are very much pro-Francis. They include Cardinals Luis Tagle, Reinhard Marx, Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga SDB and Christoph Schönborn OP, just to name a few.
If there is to be a consistory at the end of June, we should expect Pope Francis to make the announcement within the next two weeks or so.
The names and number of those whom he chooses to be part of the next group of cardinals will tell us even more of about the pope’s sense of urgency in reforming the Church.
This article was published in La Croix International on May 10, 2019 by Rome correspondent Robert Mickens