Sexual offenses, recalcitrant bishops, sluggish curia reform. Francis likes to talk about a "dented church". This year, it has received a few more dents. A review of what was arguably Francis' most difficult year.
When Pope Francis celebrates the traditional thanksgiving vespers in St. Peter's Basilica on New Year's Eve, he may give thanks for one thing above all: that 2018 is over. The abuse crisis and growing opposition within his own ranks made it the most difficult year of his pontificate so far.
Flash wedding on pope's plane
It actually started well, with a trip to Chile and Peru. A flash wedding on the pope's plane made pretty headlines. But then, in an off-the-cuff remark about cover-up allegations against Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, Francis used the word that started it all: "slander".
The media waves ran high. The pope's own abuse commissioner, Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley, criticized lack of sensitivity to victims. Francis had to respond: In February, he sent his best man for dealing with such offenses legally, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, to the Americas as a special investigator. In April, he acknowledged his own failings in a letter to Chile's bishops – and announced tough steps to be taken.
What followed is unprecedented: three men abused in their youth were hosted by the pope for a week to analyze structural causes and draw conclusions. In mid-May, Francis summoned Chilean bishops; nearly all offered to resign their posts. The pope pinpointed clerical power structures as the root of the evil – and asked the laity to renew the church from the ground up in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Abuse leads to two-front war in Vatican
Since then, Francis has been in a kind of two-front war: on one side against the legacy of abuse, on the other against conservatives. That became apparent after the removal of former Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick from the cardinalate this summer.
While the U.S. state of Pennsylvania published a devastating abuse report in August, ex-nuntius Carlo Maria Vigano opened a second main battle line, accusing the pope of going easy on men like McCarrick and fomenting moral decay in the church out of a zeitgeist-liberal attitude. Since then, there has been more fire under the roof.
Even with the diplomatic coup of the year, the Vatican failed to really shine. Although the Holy See and China ended a 70-year dispute over bishop appointments in September, the two countries are still at loggerheads. But the exact content of the agreement remains unknown, and Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong accompanied the Vatican success story with drastic denial. Taiwan, which is hostile to China and has one of its few allies in the Vatican, is also concerned.
First youth synod
There was a synod of bishops on youth: In a first, 300 teenagers and young adults gathered in Rome in March for a "pre-synod" before some 270 bishops discussed the life situation and accompaniment of the new generation in October. Many shepherds described the new style of debate with the 50 auditors, some younger and some female, as invigorating. But in the final document they could not bring themselves to demand an open discussion about topics such as sexuality.
Meanwhile, internal Vatican reform continued. The old 1988 curia order will soon be replaced. At the same time, Francis reduced the size of his inner circle of advisors in mid-December – the Cardinals' Council K9 becomes K6, so to speak. Cardinals George Pell (77), Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya (79) and Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa (85) were dismissed.
Advancing age was cited as the reason – but two of the three are also implicated in serious abuse scandals: Chile's Errazuriz is accused of cover-up, perjury and making false statements, and Australia's Pell is even on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting himself.
Papal trips and canonizations
Another weighty personnel matter this summer was the transfer of Giovanni Becciu, who had wide influence in the Secretariat of State over personnel and financial policy. His successor is Venezuelan Edgar Pena Perra, an efficient doer. Becciu, now a cardinal, now heads the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
What else might Francis remember in his personal review of the year? To the trips to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, to the World Meeting of Families in Ireland, to the Baltic States? To the canonization of Pope Paul VI. and Oscar Romero? The abuse trial against Cardinal George Pell? After the Te Deum on New Year's Eve, he will make a detour to St. Peter's Square to pause for a moment in front of the crib. This year it is built of sand.