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After 10 years as pope, Francis continues to reshape the Catholic Church

Pope Francis waves from the window of the apostolic palace during the weekly Angelus prayer on March 12, 2023 in The Vatican.
Tiziana Fabi
AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis waves from the window of the apostolic palace during the weekly Angelus prayer on March 12, 2023 in The Vatican.

ROME — On a recent Sunday, a group of young American Catholics were among thousands in St. Peter's Square waiting for Pope Francis to deliver his weekly message.

Gillian Caruso said he's doing a great job.

"He came out with the statement that we were talking about at dinner last night that no pope has ever said, about gay people not being a sin," she said. "So that was pretty cool."

Her friend Carolyn Cree agreed.

"Especially in this time, like, everyone feels supported by him, you know?"

The women were referring to the pope's recent remarks to journalists, on his flight home following a visit to Sudan, in which he denounced laws criminalizing LGBT people. He said such legislation is an injustice and a sin, because LGBT people "are children of God and God loves them."

Back in St Peter's Square, his message over, Francis delivered his signature sign-off:

"Don't forget to pray for me," the pope said. "Have a great meal and arrivederci."

As the crowd cheered, the 86-year-old pope returned to the modest Vatican City guest house where he has chosen to live, renouncing the pomp and isolation of the Apostolic Palace.

After a decade as pope, Francis continues to push for reform

In that same square on March 13, 2013, the new pope introduced himself as coming from the "end of the world." Born in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio became the first non-European pontiff in more than a millenium.

Since that day, says Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University, Francis has made clear the old world no longer calls the shots on what's Catholic and what's not.

"The Western hemisphere, the North Atlantic, a certain bourgeois Catholicism, he has rejected that in the most radical terms," says Faggioli.

The first Jesuit pope and the first to take the name Francis - after the saint of the poor - was elected with a mandate to clean up a scandal-ridden Vatican administration. Papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi says Francis' reforms of the Vatican bank, for example, are radical.

"It is no more possible that mafia money flows through the Vatican bank or corruption money for political parties in Italy like it was in the past," Politi says.

And he says it's not only on financial issues that Francis has left his mark.

"He has wiped off from the table all the obsession of the Catholic Church about sexual issues," Politi says, adding that Francis shuns the culture wars and rarely speaks about birth control or abortion.

"He doesn't change the letter of some church documents," Politi says. "But with his gestures or with his words, he paves the way to new attitudes."

The pope has taken on populists throughout the world

Francis has travelled widely across the globe, mostly to the peripheries where Catholics are few and feel marginalized.

His first trip was to the island of Lampedusa, closer to Tunisia than to Italy — the gateway to Europe for hundreds of thousands of migrants making the perilous sea crossing on smugglers' rickety boats.

There, he harshly attacked what he called the "globalization of indifference" — one of his many appeals not welcomed by nationalist and populist politicians.

And Francis has promoted outreach to other religions, in particular intensifying the Church's dialogue with Islam.

And yet, Francis has proved perhaps more than his cardinal electors had bargained for.

He has angered many conservatives inside and outside the Catholic Church for his scathing critiques of laissez-fair capitalism and his staunch environmentalism.

In Bolivia in 2015, Francis gave one of his most scathing speeches. Behind the harm being done to the environment is what he called the "dung of the devil, the unfettered pursuit of money."

"Once capital becomes an idol and guides people's decisions," the pope said, "once greed for money presides over the entire socio-economic system, it ruins society, it sets people against one another, it even puts at risk our common home, our sister mother Earth."

And during a visit to Mexico, Francis famously prayed at the U.S. border.

On the flight back to Rome, he was asked about then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's promise to build a wall along the border. The pope replied, "A person who only builds walls and not bridges is not Christian."

Francis has pushed the boundaries of Catholic practice, and conservatives have pushed back

Within the Church, Francis has opened the door slightly to divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. And he's making the Church less Vatican-centric, says Politi, delegating more decisions to bishops. "It is a slow process of decentralization," he says.

The pope has opened up the Church administration, with many women in leadership positions.

And he has declared war on clericalism — that old boys' network of priests, bishops and cardinals — the privileged caste that rules over an unquestioning flock.

"This kind of elitism is something that drives Pope Francis crazy," says David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.

Francis, Gibson adds, considers clericalism the major sin of the Church — the cause of the abuse of power and the sexual abuse of minors that has convulsed Catholicism throughout the world.

Francis tackled the cover-ups of clerical abusers as much as their crimes, says Gibson, by finally holding those responsible accountable.

But, adds Gibson, resistance to this papacy is intense.

"The opposition to Francis is increasingly vocal, the opposition is very strong. It's very passionate. It's everything goes," he says.

Francis' traditionalist adversaries accuse him of sowing confusion among the faithful by focusing on pastoral issues rather than doctrine.

An anonymous memo published last year — apparently written by the late Australian Cardinal George Pell — called this papacy "a catastrophe."

German Cardinal Gerhard Müller — removed by Francis as Vatican theological watchdog — went public with his criticism last October. In an interview with the conservative Catholic cable tv network EWTN, he poured scorn on what he sees as Francis' progressive agenda.

"This occupation of the Catholic Church is a hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ," Mueller said. "And they think that doctrine is only like a program of a political party, [which] can change ... according to their voters."

But in contrast with his conservative predecessors, Francis has never disciplined his critics. Instead, he has more or less ignored them. When pressed by journalists on the recent flight back from Africa, Francis was succinct.

"Those people are without ethics," he said. "They are of a political party, not of the Church."

Some Vatican observers say a civil war is under way in the Catholic Church, as Francis' adversaries step up efforts to push the pope to resign.

But, says Gibson, time is on Francis' side — the longer he stays, the more cardinals he'll appoint who will choose his successor.

"So, time equals power and influence in the Catholic Church," says Gibson, "and the conservatives feel they're running out of time."

Some see a misstep in Francis' response to the war in Ukraine

There's one issue where Francis has been sharply criticized by both liberals and conservatives — his initial reluctance to name Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine.

The Vatican has stressed the Holy See's traditional role as mediator in international disputes. And in recent months Francis has increasingly singled out Moscow as having started the war.

But theologian Faggioli says that initial reluctance was a serious misstep, showing the Argentine pope had not fully grasped the historical implications of war breaking out yet again in Europe.

"And when a political leader, as is the pope, when he speaks about wars, when he speaks on issues that are so serious," says Faggioli, "every word should be measured very carefully."

The pope's most ambitious project is the ongoing vast global consultation on the Church's future, culminating with two bishops' assemblies at the Vatican this year and next. Francis' goal is a more inclusive church, where everyone can be heard and share in the decision-making.

The conservatives will likely do all they can to thwart the pope's agenda.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.