Pope Francis: was his first year a success or failure?

Mar 13, 2014

Pontiff has graced magazine covers and been voted man of the year. But has he gone far enough?

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IN HIS first year at the helm of the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis has won huge popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, while overhauling the Vatican's aging bureaucracy and attempting to root out corruption in the Curia and beyond.

In just 12 months, the Pope has achieved "superstar status", appearing on the covers of magazines and newspapers around the world and being voted person of the year by Time magazine. The publication declared Francis "the people's Pope" and said his early period of reform could potentially "signal great change" for the Catholic church.

But some have argued that the "progressive" Pope, known to his 5.9 million Twitter followers as @pontifex_es, has done too little to address the church's most entrenched problems.

So has the man who was known this time last year simply as Jorge Mario Bergoglio been a successful pope?


The image of Francis holding the head of Vinicio Riva, a man ravaged by the effects of neorofibramatosis, came to symbolise the new pope's tender approach to people around him. "Francis has, through a mixture of charm, humour and openness, turned many preconceptions – and prejudices – on their heads," the Guardian says.

Francis's popularity swelled again when he was photographed kissing the feet of young offenders, and stopped to pose for "selfies" with enthusiastic followers at the Vatican. His decision to live in the modest Casa Santa Maria, rather than the usual papal residence of the apostolic palace, underlined his commitment to modesty and simplicity.


Far from being swayed by the mass adulation he has generated in his first year in charge, the Pontiff has tried to downplay the so-called "Pope Francis effect".

"Painting me as a sort of superman, a kind of star, I find offensive," he said in an interview with an Italian newspaper. "I am a man who laughs, cries, sleeps quietly, and has friends, just like everyone else."


Still, the Pope's meteoric rise to fame could make his second year in charge more challenging, the New York Times says. The paper's Rome bureau chief, Jim Yardley, writes that "[Francis] has become one of the most recognised and popular figures in the world yet his public comments are often deliberately ambiguous, as he is careful not to get pinned down on ideologically charged issues."

Greater challenges lie ahead as Francis aims to spell out the church's views on family, same-sex marriage, abortion, contraception and more. "The church agenda for 2014 is framed on the theme of family," Yardley says, "which includes social issues that have alienated many followers in the United States and Europe".


In spite of Francis's efforts to improve transparency in the Vatican bank, root out corruption in the Curia, restore relations with Jews, Muslims and the Anglican church and revamp the powerful department responsible for selecting bishops, some commentators have accused Francis of failing to address the Catholic church's greatest controversy: clerical sex abuse.

In December 2013, Francis announced a new commission to work out how to support victims and establish new methods to protect children, but some say he simply hasn't gone far enough.

Priest and victims' advocate Thomas P Doyle, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, says that the Pontiff's move to make sex abuse a crime in the Vatican City State is so meaningless it is "almost comical". Doyle says that for all the Vatican's pronouncements, little of real substance has been done to address the church's past wrongs.

"The survivors of abuse and countless others from the church and from society in general have been waiting for three decades for evidence that the institutional church 'gets it'," Doyle says. "There not only is no real evidence that it has, but from all appearances the hierarchy will remain on the defensive, hoping the problem will go away."


Other church analysts disagree however. Church analyst and priest Thomas Reese said that in his view it would be wrong to assess Francis's individual achievements and failings without considering his broader goals: to provide greater care for the poor and to re-establish a culture of acceptance and forgiveness within the church as a whole.

"All of us in the church are going to have to realise that we are not going to get everything we want, right away," Reese told the New York Times. "And we're probably not getting everything we want, ever."

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