Pope Francis celebrated the fifth anniversary of his papacy this week, reaching a milestone in a pontificate focused on the mercy of God, the joy of faith and love, and a call for the Church to serve the common good by reaching out to society’s marginalized.
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was a stunning development when it took place on March 13, 2013—not least because it followed the historic and unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
The new pope, who chose the name Francis in tribute to the gentle, Christ-like ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, was the first pope from the Americas, the first from the southern hemisphere and the first Jesuit.
He also was the first pope since 1903 to decline residence in the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace in favor of a suite in the more modest Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guesthouse adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica where he takes a communal breakfast with other guests and celebrates morning Mass in the chapel.
The humble, open style of Francis’ Petrine ministry has made for a unique and refreshing approach that has served the Church well.
It has even been said that his papacy has resulted in a “Francis effect” of renewed interest in the Catholic Church in particular and in religious practice in general.
We saw his appeal ourselves, up close and personal, on his September 2015 visit to New York when Catholics and non-Catholics alike followed his every move—lining up for hours, for example, for a glimpse of his motorcade traveling through Central Park and for entry to his Mass at Madison Square Garden.
We were all touched by his stop at the 9/11 Memorial and buoyed by his address at the United Nations, when he appealed to world leaders to protect the earth’s resources and address climate change.
He seemed especially in his element with the schoolchildren at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, laughing and touching their hands as they excitedly snapped cellphone photos of their special visitor.
More recently, in a photo that went viral, the pope was completely at ease when he invited a little girl with Down syndrome to sit beside him after she approached his lectern during an address at the Vatican last fall.
The pope’s Gospel-like encounters with prisoners, addicts and other marginalized individuals over the years, his embrace of a man with a disfiguring skin disease early in his papacy, and his personal hospitality toward refugees serve as reminders that we are all brothers and sisters worthy of love and caring, no matter our limitations or differences.
Not all of his initiatives have been without criticism, though. Earlier this year, for example, questions arose about how he handled accusations that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, while he was a priest, covered up allegations of abuse against his mentor.
There were also some who reacted critically to “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s document on the family, especially regarding ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that, under some conditions, some of them could return to the sacraments.
A certain amount of criticism, of course, goes with the office he holds, one with big responsibilities and an important mission, and Francis understands that completely.
Pope Francis has our prayers as he goes forward on his prophetic path as a Successor of St. Peter.