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Francis turns 85, becoming one of history’s oldest popes at a crucial time for Catholics

Pope Francis seated
Pope Francis at a meeting with priests, seminarians and catechists in Bratislava, Slovakia, in September.
(Gregorio Borgia / Associated Press)

Pope Francis celebrated his 85th birthday Friday, a milestone made even more remarkable given the COVID-19 pandemic, his intestinal surgery over the summer and the weight of history: His predecessor, Benedict XVI, retired at this age, and the last pontiff to have lived longer was Leo XIII more than a century ago.

Francis appears to be still going strong, recently concluding a whirlwind trip to Cyprus and Greece after pandemic-defying jaunts earlier this year to Iraq, Slovakia and Hungary. He shows no sign of slowing down his campaign to make the post-COVID world a more environmentally sustainable, economically just and fraternal place where the poor are prioritized.

Francis also has set in motion an unprecedented two-year consultation of rank-and-file Roman Catholics on making the church more attuned to the laity.

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“I see a lot of energy,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, one of Francis’ trusted communications gurus. “What we’re seeing is the natural expression, the fruit of the seeds that he has sown.”

But Francis also is beset by problems at home and abroad and is facing a sustained campaign of opposition from the conservative Catholic right. He has responded with the papal equivalent of “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

After spending the first eight years of his papacy gently nudging Catholic hierarchs to embrace financial prudence and responsible governance, Francis took the gloves off this year and appears poised to keep it that way.

A Vatican judge has indicted 10 people, including a cardinal, on charges including extortion, abuse of office and fraud in connection with the Secretariat of State’s 350 million-euro investment in a London real estate venture.

Since his last birthday, Francis ordered a 10% pay cut for cardinals and slashed salaries to a lesser degree for Vatican employees in a bid to rein in the Vatican’s $57-million budget deficit.

To fight corruption, he imposed a $45 gift cap for Holy See personnel. He passed a law allowing cardinals and bishops to be criminally prosecuted by the Vatican’s lay-led tribunal, which set the stage for the current high-profile trial of his onetime close advisor, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, on finance-related charges.

Outside the Vatican, he hasn’t made many new friends, either. After approving a 2019 law outlining the way cardinals and bishops could be investigated for sex abuse cover-up, the last year saw nearly a dozen Polish episcopal heads roll.

Francis also approved term limits for leaders of lay Catholic movements to try to curb their abuses of power, resulting in the forced removal of influential church leaders. He recently accepted the resignation of the Paris archbishop after a media storm alleging governance and personal improprieties.

Pope Francis has expressed ‘shame’ on behalf of himself and the Roman Catholic Church for the scale of child sexual abuse within the church in France.

“In the past year, Pope Francis has accelerated his efforts at reform by putting real teeth into the church’s canon law regarding finances,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, director of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross’ Program of Church Management.

“While celebrating his birthday, Vatican watchers are also looking for more concrete signs of compliance regarding the pope’s new rules, especially from those who report directly to him within the Vatican,” Gahl said in an email, noting that a change in culture is needed alongside Francis’ new policies and regulations.

Despite Francis’ tough line, he received a round of birthday applause from the cardinals, bishops and priests who joined him for an Advent meditation at the Vatican on Friday morning. Later in the day, he welcomed a dozen African and Syrian migrants whom the Vatican helped resettle from Cyprus.

In a particularly controversial move this last year, Francis in July reversed a decision by his predecessor, Benedict, and re-imposed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. Francis said he needed to take action because Benedict’s 2007 decision to allow freer celebration of the old rite had divided the church and been exploited by conservatives.

“Some wanted me dead,” Francis said of his critics.

Speaking with fellow Jesuits in Slovakia in September, Francis confided that he knew his 10-day hospital stay in July for surgery to remove about 13 inches of his large intestine had fueled hope among some conservative Catholics eager for a new pope.

“I know there were even meetings among priests who thought the pope was in worse shape than what was being said,” he told the Jesuits in comments that were later published in the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica. “They were preparing the conclave.”

That may or may not have been the case, but if history is any guide, those priests might not have been off base in at least discussing the possibility.

Benedict was 85 when he resigned in February 2013, becoming the first pope to step down in 600 years and paving the way for Francis’ election. While enjoying robust health at the time, Benedict said he simply didn’t have the strength to carry on.

Before him, John Paul II died at age 84, and John Paul I died at 65 after only 33 days on the job. In fact, all 20th century popes died in their early 80s or younger, with the exception of Pope Leo XIII, who was 93 when he died in 1903.

Early on in his pontificate, Francis predicted a short papacy of two or three years and credited Benedict with having “opened the door” to future papal retirements.

But the Argentine Jesuit made clear after his July surgery that resigning “didn’t even cross my mind.”

The Vatican has detailed laws, rituals and roles to ensure the transfer of power when a pope dies or resigns. But none apply when he’s sick.

That is welcome news to Sister Nathalie Becquart, one of the top women at the Vatican. Francis tapped her to help organize the two-year consultation process of Catholics around the globe that will end in 2023 with a meeting of bishops, known as a synod.

Becquart knows well what the pope is up against as he tries to remake the church into a less clerical, more laity-focused institution.

“It’s a call to change,” she told a conference this week. “And we can say it’s not an easy path.”


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