After a series of moves that seemed to have secured his legacy, the question arises: what will Pope Francis’ legacy be? What will this pontificate leave to the universal Church? It is no small question because it also concerns the future of the pontificate itself. Will Pope Francis’ vision be carried forward? How will this vision be carried forward? And what will be new?
They are all complex questions because they collide with practical difficulties, namely the difficulty of defining Pope Francis’s pontificate. Was the pontificate of Pope Francis a papacy of transition or construction? And, if it was construction, what did he build?
In general, the pontificate of Pope Francis is spoken of as a pontificate that has renewed the synodal thrust of the Church. Pope Francis, after all, has put the Catholic Church on a synodal journey, has convened two extraordinary and two ordinary synods, and is celebrating one that lasts two years. The question to ask, however, is what is meant by synodality.
The word synodality was never used during the Second Vatican Council, nor was collegiality, because it was considered not very concrete. If by synodality we mean a way for the Church to receive suggestions from the peripheries and make them her own, then this synodality was already present in the life of the Church. This happened, for instance, with the Pontifical Mission Societies, which were born from the laity and became pontifical, for example, because the popes recognized their value. If, instead, by synodality we mean an always open discussion, then this is what we are experiencing with Pope Francis.
But probably even this always-open discussion does not do justice to the pontificate of Pope Francis. In these ten years, Pope Francis has governed like no one else. He made decisions personally, accelerated and decelerated changes when he deemed it appropriate, send away or to retirement the officials he no longer thought should work in the Vatican, and even changed his secretary at least four times – even Gonzalo Aemilius, the secretary from Uruguay, has left his position as secretary to the Pope to return to Montevideo, according to recent news reports.
Arguably, the central theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate is about government, not everything else. And over the years, the government has seen loyalists burnt out and new people brought in, always with only one person at the center: Pope Francis.
Pope Francis has often said that he wants a conversion of hearts, and his latest moves and his consistory seem to demonstrate that the Pope has at heart the process of selecting bishops, first and foremost. Therefore, Pope Francis wants this new mentality to remain in the Church, and many of his appointments demonstrate it.
In Italy, for example, many new bishops have been created cardinal. In the United States, he favored those who were his close allies in the synod, creating cardinals Cupich, Gregory, and McElroy as if to rebalance the choices of the US episcopate, certainly more conservative. The Pope’s new cardinals have a low average age; the new archbishops of Madrid, Brussels, and Buenos Aires are around 60 and therefore have at least 20 years of life ahead of them.
When the Pope wants someone to continue to govern even after the pontificate ends, he makes him a bishop or a cardinal. It is a common trend, which, however, shows after ten years of pontificate. This is a plethora of new bishops and cardinals that will be difficult to replace by any successor.
In the end, there can’t be too many Mueller cases, that is, of a cardinal who ends his term in office and is without another job. Pope Francis, therefore, has not only created new bishops and cardinals. He somehow forced their presence on the successor.
Indeed, Pope Francis waited for a generational transition before making clear-cut decisions. He overturned the liberalization of the ancient rite with the Traditionis Custodes when he had just left the hospital in 2021, and after this last hospitalization, he completed the transition. Some time ago, a person close to Pope Francis told me that the Pope had a ten-year plan. Seeing all the initiatives taken in recent months, it seems to me a living prophecy.
Why ten years? Because in ten years, all those who could have blocked his plan, or at least highlighted the cracks in his reforms, would have left the Roman Curia.
The new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was elected almost by surprise, with a long letter from the Pope explaining the reason for the appointment. But it would likely be wrong to think that the Pope would not have chosen Victor Manuel Fernandez as prefect if Benedict XVI had still been alive or if the doctrinal debate had been different. The Pope would have picked him anyway because the promotion of Fernandez to archbishop was one of his first decisions and because, by now, very few remained in the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith who had worked in the former Holy Office – the archbishop of Noia turned 80 last July 10, retiring permanently.
In the end, many issues are on the table, but the central question remains: what has Pope Francis left behind? And perhaps his most incredible legacy is his presence in the media, the need to speak publicly about things that in the past would have been taboo, such as, for example, the abuse scandal in the Church, even going so far as to accuse the institution itself in a communication campaign that seems to exalt the Pope and put everything else in a difficulty position.
In his allegations of abuse, the Pope takes up a cross that John Paul II had carried. Under John Paul II, scandals in the Church had come to light for the first time. But both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, despite requests for an apology, have never accused the institution, the difference between individual and institutional responsibility remaining evident to them, reforming but never questioning the Church itself.
Pope Francis has inaugurated a new season: that of a Church attentive to public opinion, which is questioned by public opinion, and responds without fear of internal consequences. The case of abuses in Chile, which Pope Francis considered in depth only after the protests received in the country in 2018, is emblematic. But the McCarrick report, which the Pope wanted after the accusations mounted by public opinion, also goes in that direction.
As much as the newspapers like it, conceding to public opinion – what the Pope has called “the altar of hypocrisy” – means ceding ground, leaving the initiative to the media. And yet, this renewed (and sometimes naïve) transparency is perhaps Pope Francis’ most significant legacy. There is no turning back from this occasionally tricky relationship with the media. Once you open the door, the door stays open.
This difficulty puts the very institution of the Church in crisis. Many allegations of abuse turn out not to be abuse cases. Exposing the mere allegations means creating a precedent that will be difficult to manage.
Thus, the new bishops and cardinals, and the relationship with public opinion, are probably the two greatest legacies of Pope Francis. This next consistory – which covers two because it also replaces the cardinals who will turn 80 in 2024 – underscores the Pope’s approach. The episcopate changes, but the structures do not necessarily change. Rather, the structures remain suspended. We have dicasteries and commissions, and the way they are defined today recalls formulas that in the past were called pro-tempore positions. They are so. Everything is pro-tempore because everything is centered on the Pope.