Bishop William Crean of the Diocese of Cloyne realised Pope Francis was unique after his ordination in Rome 10 years ago.
“I’d seen him speak before,” he recalled. “But when I met him for the first time, I got a sense of low-key humility – but a significant conveying of inner strength and depth.
“I’d say over time he will be described as a prophetic figure – he’s a bit of a disrupter in the interest of renewal,” he said.
From day one, the new pope disrupted. He announced he would not take up residence, as expected, in the papal apartments at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, preferring to live in a more modest guesthouse suite. He ate meals in the common diningroom with staff and held Mass with Vatican employees.
But a decade on from his promise to reform the Roman Curia (the inner administrative institutions of the Vatican), how is he regarded?
For Fr Tim Hazelwood of the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland (ACP), the pope’s ability to open up discourse within the organisation has been “seismic”.
“Since [taking office] he has attempted to reform the church from within the Curia,” he said. “From the outside, you can’t visibly see, but a lot of people who were very dogmatic in their outlook of the church have been moved out. That is shown in the way we can hold our conversations now. Before Pope Francis, any open conversations were under the spotlight of [church doctrine]... There was a sense of fear within the church to talk about issues like the ordination of women, like gay rights – of course that’s gone now.
“He has changed the direction in which the Irish and global church was going, seismically. We were heading towards fundamentalist Christian groups – an aggressive, confrontational church – and instead it’s a more humble, open and welcoming church.”
ACP’s members would “very much hold him in high regard”, but not all would agree, he said. “Others would prefer if he stuck by promoting doctrine constantly, but that’s not his way.”
Bishop Crean said Pope Francis was “very positively” regarded by bishops in Ireland. His papacy had been met with less enthusiasm from more conservative, traditional groups in parts of the US and Europe but he also had an ability to reach people on the edges of the faith with his pastoral orientation, he said.
“He has a great urgency to connect to the reality of people’s lives,” he said. “It’s not just liberation theology, it’s the relationship with the people – he has a strong sense of speaking to the people in a language that is comprehensible: less theological and dogmatic.”
Key to reform the church towards a more intimate relationship with its members and God, has been a shift away from a historically Eurocentric church.
Dr Michael Kirwan of Trinity College Dublin’s Loyola Institute suggested the pope’s Latin American origins had aided his ability to diversify its leadership.
“The enthusiasm with which Pope Francis has been received in countries of the global south, for example, on his visit to Africa and Asia, and the ambivalence of some northern countries, such as the USA, may give a clue to the significance of his pontificate,” he said.
His attempt to “recentre the church away from its historical rootedness in Europe... marks him out as different from his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who each regarded Europe as the authentic centre of Catholicism”.
There has been some resistance, Mr Kirwan said, “from those in the north who are being disempowered”.
“This is especially true, perhaps in the USA, where Francis is seen through the lens of a polarised culture warfare, so that he is lionised by progressives and demonised by traditionalists,” he said.
He has, however, made a strong impact in at least two areas: “The first is an acceptance of the messiness and uncertainty of people’s lived lives, rather than the false comfort of doctrinal assertiveness. The second is the huge impact of Pope Francis’s advocacy for an endangered planet, insisting that the ecological crisis be addressed alongside issues of poverty, and of economic and political injustice.”
Mr Kirwan suggested there was doubt as to the pope’s ability to reform the church following a number of high-profile scandals.
“The crisis of clerical sex abuse, shockingly mishandled by hierarchical authorities, revealed a terrible and pervasive dysfunction,” he said. “For many, the same corrosion is reflected in the official church’s inability to respect and empower women, and its continued marginalisation and alienation of sexual minorities... There are doubts among many as to whether Pope Francis ‘gets it’ with regard to these challenges, and whether, after 10 years of his papacy, the church has managed to get on top of the crises he was entrusted to address.”
The pope has sought to address the burgeoning crises of declining membership and vocations by leading a worldwide synod with the aim of understanding what God is asking of the church today – or, in other words, what do those at all levels of the church expect of it.
Dr Nicola Brady, chairwoman for the synodal pathway of the Catholic Church in Ireland, said the Pope’s vision – which for the first time has asked parishioners for their say – was “both a significant challenge and a great gift to the church”.
“It is challenging us to think deeply about what it means to be followers of Christ in the fractured and wounded world of today,” she said. “Pope Francis demonstrates through his leadership how we can follow the example of Christ in creating space for encounter, deep listening and compassion with particular attention to those who are most vulnerable and marginalised.
“Through this synodal process we are already seeing new spaces for encounter developing at all levels of church life – from listening sessions in local parishes to the first European synodal assembly in Prague last February – and relationships are being formed, deepened and renewed as a result.”
Bishop Crean takes inspiration from the “humble, holy and courageous man” in his efforts to renew the struggling church.
“There is for him a sense that the church has within its mission to be a redemptive imperative for humanity,” he said. “Maybe the institution has been problematic for a lot of people in their lives, but now Pope Francis’s orientation is to go back to the Gospel narratives – to be close to people in their suffering.”