The new hospitalization of Pope Francis has left many questions hanging. One wonders, in particular, which initiatives the Pope will carry forward and which will remain set aside instead. One wonders what the Pope’s plans are and whether this new surgery has changed them. One wonders, above all, what will be the legacy of Pope Francis.

These questions go far beyond who will be the next Pope. There is, of course, discussion about the possible successor of Pope Francis, that has been around for a while. It’s nothing new. It has always been there, even with previous popes. However, the discussion on the Pope’s legacy and what the successor is called to do is different.

In the current situation, then, what is the legacy of Pope Francis?

First of all, there is a profoundly changed college of cardinals. Pope Francis created two-thirds of the cardinals to vote for his successor. The Pope’s criterion has been to look to people rather than to offices or dioceses. Thus, there are many cardinals who, in reality, did not emerge from the “Roman school” and know very little about the Curia. The real problem, however, is that the cardinals do not know each other. There were only three consistories for general debates, which took place in the first two years and the last year of his pontificate. But the last debate was a closed one, which prevented exchanges and left ideas sidelined.

Pope Francis is leaving a somewhat scattered college of cardinals that must find a way to unite. The idea is that you can better see the center from the periphery, as Pope Francis said at the beginning of his pontificate. However, there is no longer a center.

There are currently 121 cardinal electors. They will become 113 by the end of the year. There was a persistent rumor that the Pope was about to convene a consistory to “cover” this hole, again surpassing the number of electors and thus further marking the College of Cardinals with his vision of the world. For now, the Pope has not yet convened a consistory. The focus is on a new “batch” of cardinals in the autumn, but everything is uncertain with the Pope.

And yet there is a question. Pope Francis has never formally derogated the maximum number of cardinals for a Conclave, set at 120 by the apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis. When John Paul II overrode the number, he wrote that the decision was “in derogation from existing legislation.” Pope Francis has never mentioned any derogation. This being the case, it could also be that the Conclave would only be considered valid with 120 cardinal electors, and therefore the most recently created cardinals would end up outside the Conclave.

Are these just regulatory issues? Not exactly. The problem with a conclave is that nobody should dispute its validity. On the hand, in these issues it is not about the number of cardinals, but the role of cardinals per se. So, there should not be any red hat excluded by the conclave. Still, the issue can be rumored because somebody thought about that. 

After all, it is still unknown whether Cardinal Angelo Becciu can enter the Conclave because there is only a meager press release from the Holy See Press Office on his renunciation of cardinal prerogatives. The college of cardinals, for example, has not deliberated.

And this is Pope Francis’ second legacy: the reform. A reform that has remained legally incomplete and which has required several adjustments. Pope Francis is not a Pope of only gestures. He is a Pope who has legislated a lot. But he did it above all with light juridical instruments, such as the motu proprio, and therefore basing decisions directly on his own will. Pope Francis believes that the juridical part can be fixed at any time. The reality is that the legal vacuum can create various problems.

Thus, it remains a reform that is probably incomplete, or in any case, to be defined, and this leaves room for anyone to use it as they please. There is no reform by Pope Francis simply because the reform is made up of many fragmented reforms, steps forward and steps backward, which reveal that there was no project but only a general idea.

In short, the Pope has made many micro-reforms, but the problem will be to align them and somehow make them stick. For example, on the one hand, the Pope gives a more significant role to the conferences of bishops (he writes about it in Evangelii Gaudium) and transfer to them some responsibilities for the translation of liturgical books. On the other hand, the Pope still appears as the final decision maker. This is also the case for the synodal journey, which it seems he also wants it to be a great experiment involving the people of God.

In the end, the Pope’s reform wants to give a more significant role to the laity, and in order to do so, everything is made to depend on the canonical mission. And who gives the canonical mission? The Pope! It is also said that the bishop maintains his role as a guide of the people of God, even though power no longer derives from being an ordained bishop. There are a whole series of contradictions that need to be resolved.

Is it fair to say that the legacy of Pope Francis risks being above all confusion? Is it legitimate to think that after this pontificate, there will be a need to put the pieces back in place and give everything a new shape and structure?

The real problem is that, in recent years, the sense of Romanity that has always guaranteed universality seems to have been lost. Even the Pope has a perspective that, being outside this Roman idea, becomes local and a circumscribed reality. The viewpoint of Pope Francis comes from his personal experiences, but it is not a perspective that also looks to the universal Church. There is a lot of Latin America in the way Pope Francis sees the Curia.

And so the great challenge after Pope Francis will be to find a new universal perspective for the Church that does not only concern social challenges. The latter is a political matter highly developed in Pope Francis. In fact, his significant appeals on the environment, migration, good politics, and against corruption are widespread and an integral part of his texts, speeches, and encyclicals.

Perhaps, however, there is a lack of a universal concept of faith that goes beyond popular piety and peoples, and that truly puts Christ at the center. Not that Pope Francis doesn’t. The idea of faith that permeates all structures must be added to the pragmatism of faith.

Instead, it is as if there is a separation: on one side, structural reforms; on the other side, social ideas; and finally, faith and popular piety. Overcoming these dichotomies is probably the most significant challenge for the Church of the future.


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