1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Approachable and opaque: 10 years of Pope Francis

March 12, 2023

When the papal conclave elected a clergyman from Argentina as pope on March 13, 2013, the world immediately started asking questions. Ten years later, historians and theologians assess what he has achieved.

Pope Francis looks out from a balcony at the Vatican in 2013
Pope Francis was chosen to succeed Benedict XVI in March 2013Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

"You know that it was the duty of the conclave to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the Earth to get one ...": that was how Pope Francis first greeted the crowd outside St. Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013.

Few of the thousands of worshippers gathered in the square knew much, if anything, about the Argentine Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Before the conclave, the archbishop of Buenos Aires had not attracted much media attention outside of his homeland.

He was well known in Catholic circles, however, having already been given serious consideration to succeed the late Pope John Paul II in 2005. But the job went to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, who became Pope Benedict XVI.

Pope Francis, left, embracing Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, June 28, 2017
Pope Francis (left) differs from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in several fundamental waysImage: L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo/AP/picture alliance

Ten years later, no one is asking "Jorge who?" But many people all over the world still wonder what exactly this pope stands for. He is at once approachable and familiar, yet in some ways stubbornly opaque.

But there is one thing that all Catholic experts can agree on: Pope Francis is different.

Power of a name

Bergoglio, already unique for being the first non-European pope since the eighth century, caused another sensation when he chose his papal name. While many pontiffs have spoken with admiration about Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached extensively about the need for Christians, especially clergymen, to emulate Jesus by living in poverty, and about respect for the natural world, no pope had ever honored him by taking his name before.

The choice of name was immediately taken as a sign of the new pope's approach to church policy.

"Pope Francis is a Franciscan Jesuit," Dutch Vatican reporter Hendro Munsterman told DW. "He values poverty, simplicity, the environment and interfaith dialogue. He wants to fix the church like the 13th-century saint did because it's broken."

Munsterman, himself a theologian, has been covering Francis since the beginning of his pontificate. The pope's emphasis on simplicity has been apparent in many small ways since March 2013: Francis, wearing worn-out shoes, took up quarters not in the Apostolic Palace, but in the Vatican guest house. He prefers to meet with people at the margins of society, like refugees and prisoners. When he travels, he prefers a small Fiat or Renault to luxury cars.

Small signs, big words

These small signs have been matched by big words. In 2015, Francis made headlines around the world when his environmental encyclical Laudato Si called for swift and unified global action against climate change, consumerism and irresponsible development. He also attended the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference to support this message.

Pope Francis speaks at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on November 25, 2014.
In November 2014, Francis became the first pontiff to address the European Parliament in StrasbourgImage: abaca/picture alliance

Quite a few of his 40 trips abroad as pope have taken him to the margins of society in whatever country he is visiting, and he has sharply criticized industrialized nations for taking advantage of poorer countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he urged wealthier nations to commit to sharing vaccines with developing countries.

Despite the Catholic Church's attempts to be above politics, it is nevertheless a geopolitical force. And Francis' tenure has shaken up centuries of Church eurocentrism.

"It is clear that Pope Francis is the first truly global pope… who has liberated Catholicism from the ideas of a moralistic middle-class bourgeois," that long defined it, church historian Massimo Faggioli told DW.

Moving on from old Europe

There are nearly 1.4 billion Roman Catholics around the world, according to the latest figures from 2021. Year by year, the number of faithful in Africa and Asia increases, while simultaneously dwindling in Europe. The clergy and members of religious orders are developing along similar lines. To some extent, the old bastions of Catholicism are drifting apart, and the worldwide Catholic Church is becoming a multiplicity of diverse churches.

Interview with a sexual abuse survivor

When Francis became pope, sexual abuse scandals had already become a stain on the church's reputation around the world. The pope has sought to address this important issue more directly than his predecessors.

Some in the Vatican have accused Francis of going too far in demanding the church commit to self-reflection. He has ruffled more than a few feathers by seeking open dialogue on the matter, particularly from outside the Vatican, eschewing years of authoritarian top-down decrees from the Holy See.

Despite these attempts at dialogue, however, victims have continued to criticize the church for being slow to react to accusations and too invested in protecting clergy.

Controversial debates on role of women, church leadership

In ecclesiastical language, the term for this kind of dialogue is synod. It is meant to be an open forum for bishops and other figures in the church to address church challenges. Under Francis' predecessors, however, synods were little more than prearranged events to affirm the wishes of top ranks at the Vatican.

The current pope, however, has called for open and controversial debates — though this has not always led to new ideas being met with concrete action.

Church historian Faggioli points to still wide-open questions, such as the role of women in the church and other theological and structural reforms, especially when it comes to church leadership.

Pope Francis in a wheelchair with children in Juba, South Sudan, in February 2023
Pope Francis met with children outside the Cathedral of Saint Therese during his stay in South Sudan in FebruaryImage: VATICAN MEDIA/REUTERS

What will shape Francis' legacy?

"The prophetic and the cautiously doubtful," said Munsterman, "come together in Pope Francis."

In this way, the pope makes everyone uneasy, both "those who want change (and hope for quick decisions), and those who, on the contrary, want to leave everything as it was, or perhaps even return to the good old days of the ideal world of Benedict XVI's Bavaria," Munsterman added.

Francis is one of the oldest popes in church history. He is older than Benedict when he resigned, and older than John Paul II when he died in 2005. Nowadays, Francis often moves around in a wheelchair, and his travel schedules have become more manageable. As he marks the 10th anniversary of his pontificate, the question remains as to what will shape his legacy.

According to Munsterman, Francis is a pope "who thinks in terms of processes." His forward-looking speeches seek to challenge the status quo and set new processes in motion. At the same time, he is still a Jesuit and wants to lead these processes with a deep spirituality.

For Faggioli, the biggest question remains "the open-ended, still uncertain outcome" of whether synods can become active summits for robust debate that leads to real policy changes.

"That is the long game," he has been playing, said the historian. That's where the long-term significance of Francis' pontificate is at stake, he said. "And the next two years will be decisive."

This article was originally written in German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C