Are we really in the final stretch of the pontificate? The question has been circulating for some time and has become even more persistent since Pope Francis had his first hospitalization and surgery more than a year ago. Pope Francis, however, wanted to demonstrate with facts that his pontificate is not in a waning phase. He multiplied his activities. He never held back. He began to accelerate decisions. But are we faced with a long final stretch, or are we in a pontificate in its climax?
These are legitimate questions, as the Pope celebrates a new consistory and publishes an apostolic exhortation on ecology. It seems, after all, that Pope Francis has never been so active. Yet, the signs seem to be those of a pontificate that now, in its waning phase, is trying in every way to show itself alive, active, and present. A pontificate that is, in some ways, trying to monopolize the future of the Church.
The consistory of September 30, at the end of which there will be 136 cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave, is a striking signal. Pope Francis held nine consistories in ten years of his pontificate, while John Paul II had nine in twenty-seven years. The Pope faced a significant generational turnover and used it to change and shape the College of Cardinals. It’s not just a question of red hats. Even some episcopates, such as the Italian one, have experienced a profound transformation under Pope Francis.
This consistory, from the point of view of the profiles, is a classic consistory of Pope Francis. There is attention to the peripheries (Malaysia) and countries at war (South Sudan). For the first time in history, there is a resident Patriarch of Jerusalem. There are also archbishops of sees traditionally considered as cardinal sees (Bogota and Madrid). And there are two nuncios (three, if we count Archbishop Marchetto, who, however, does not vote in the conclave), a sign of the constant attention that Pope Francis has paid to the diplomatic world since before his election. It is said that to the general congregations the Pope not only gave the speech released but also an intervention on the role of diplomats which was greatly appreciated by those who felt that, under Benedict XVI, the diplomatic part had been neglected or at least placed under tutelage.
Three cardinals of the Curia (Prevost, Gugerotti, and Fernandez) will also have influence in a subsequent conclave. Prevost with all the bishops’ dossiers in hand and Gugerotti with an acquired diplomatic competence and knowledge of the Eastern Churches. Fernandez, however, seems to be a choice for the immediate future, dictated by Pope Francis’ need to have a friend who interprets his thoughts.
What is striking about the consistory, however, is the numbers. There are 136 cardinal electors at the end of this consistory, 16 more than the limit of 120 established by Paul VI. The electors will return to below 120 only at the end of 2024, when they will be 119. Of these, 91 will be those created by Pope Francis, 22 will be those created by Benedict XVI, and six will be those of John Paul II. Over the next year, therefore, Pope Francis may not even convene any consistory because he has completed the generational change and because every future conclave will still be a conclave with the members wanted by Pope Francis.
Does this mean that a possible conclave will follow the Pope’s instructions? Possibly, but not certainly. In the end, the Pope will be dead (or will have renounced); therefore, even the cardinals will find themselves free to ponder situations different from those foreseen. Could the conclave, however, be influenced by the pontificate? It is possible, of course, because the media attention on the pontificate has been very high.
It was what was intended. In many cases, the election of Pope Francis has been presented as a sort of “media redemption process” for the Church. The Pope, who came from the end of the world, was called to change the narrative of the Church in the face of a stained image.
Beyond the reform of the Curia, this was the Pope’s mandate. Ultimately, this sensitivity to public opinion developed under Pope Francis is striking. It is all the more striking because it now seems to have become the primary concern.
We don’t know if we are in a waning pontificate, but we know that the pressure of the media has influenced the Pope. From the archbishop of Paris Aupetit and his resignation accepted on “the altar of hypocrisy” (Pope Francis dixit), to the sensational change of gear on abuse in Chile, the Pope has always looked at public opinion with great attention. Maybe public opinion doesn’t dictate the agenda, but it still has weight.
It is a theme that returns forcefully in the so-called “trial of the century” in the Vatican. The Pope’s first response was to transfer the funds from the Secretariat of State to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), even going so far as to mention a fund in the statement (the Centurion fund) to demonstrate a commitment to sever every possible dead branch at a reputational risk.
In recent days, the civil parties in the Vatican have been asking for compensation for damages, and the IOR and the Secretariat of State have asked for compensation for damage to their image. An external company assessed the reputational damage, and the cost is that estimated for a reputation reconstruction campaign. But what does this campaign consist of? Will there be commercials? Will these be paid items? How can an institution like the Secretariat of State decide to have to redo its media image? How can a body like the IOR only want to rebuild its image through favorable public opinion?
The requests are, in some ways, the symptom of this pontificate. And so perhaps the answer is that we are not at the end of the pontificate, nor the climax. Instead, we are in a moment when the Pope is trying to ensure that he has all the ground prepared for his decisions to be understood and applied. There is the moment of waiting, the moment of mediation, the moment of public presence. We are in that third moment, probably.
Thus, having secured the cardinal legacy with the consistory, Pope Francis will publish a new appeal on the environment and then celebrate a synod that promises to be explosive and controversial. When Pope Francis looks to the future, he says he wants to open processes. These processes are unlikely to end with the end of his pontificate. But they will probably be equally unlikely to be carried forward in the “spirit of Francis.”