Five years after his election, this year is make-or-break for Pope Francis

Red balloons fly as Pope Francis waves to the crowdduring the Sunday Angelus prayer, on March 11, 2018 (Getty Images)

The election of a Jesuit to the See of Peter thrilled me, even as the resignation of Benedict XVI had crushed my bones. History was happening, and I was not only there, but telling people about it. Sitting at a workstation in the newsroom at Vatican Radio, with my colleague, Christopher Wells, I heard Cardinal Tauran make the announcement — a return to Latin form after the polyglot preface that Cardinal Medina gave in 2005 — and had to dig to place the name. When it clicked into place, the first couple of sentences spoken were unprintable. “Goodness gracious, sakes alive!” was the gist of it. That’s a sentiment we’ve all expressed, and heard expressed, more than a few times during the intervening half-decade.

The five-year mark is a good point at which to pause and take stock: to stand still and take a look around, to see where we are, and maybe try to get some idea of our bearing.

There are lots of different ways to take the measure of a leader and his leadership, but none of the standard measures are quite suited to the kind of leadership that Papal leadership is. Everyone knows, for example, that the man who used to be called Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, SJ, was elected with a reform mandate: there was one thing on which every one of the red hats in the conclave could be reliably supposed to agree, and that one thing was the brokenness of the curial system by means of which the Pope exercises his threefold munus of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Universal Church.

Frankly, the Pope has not seemed terribly interested in reforming the Church’s central bureaucracy. Sure, he appointed his Council of Nine “Cardinal Advisers” to study the matter and draw up a reform plan. He also seems to abide by the maxim, “If you want to make sure something never gets done, appoint a committee to study it.” He has said so, or said as much, in words. The actual reforms he has announced have been shuffles, in essence, and the principles – such as they are – on which the reform of the Curia is based are ones apt not so much to direct a functional system, as to make it easier for the head man to sidestep the machine and govern directly. In any case, two of the nine members of his kitchen cabinet are dealing with sex abuse scandals (Cardinal George Pell is home in Australia on indefinite leave to face abuse charges, while Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz is trying to respond to the fallout from the Barros affair, along with Pope Francis himself), and another – Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa – is accused of financial mismanagement (which he denies).

Pope Francis, meanwhile, seems increasingly isolated within the Vatican, even as his “surprises” continue to generate media buzz, though less of it, and less sympathetic. Most recently, his aeroplane wedding stunt fell flat, and failed to divert attention for more than a few hours from the big story of his trip to Chile and Peru, which was his sufficient, dismissive, frankly insulting and possibly injurious attitude toward victims of clerical sex abuse. In short, the shine has gone off. People in the mainstream secular media are asking questions, and people in the Church — even and especially those, who heretofore have been well disposed to him and to his style of governance — grow tired of waiting and the games that go with it.

At the beginning of the year, I predicted that 2018 would be a make-or-break year for Pope Francis, in which he would have to decide whether to use his gifts to set the project on track, or whether he will continue trying to remake Rome into what I described as “Buenos Aires-on-Tiber”. The stakes remain at least as high as they were at the turning of the year. It is important to remember that we are still in the first quarter.