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The Catholic Church's Superman?

March 12, 2018

He has made it his mission to tear down walls. After five years in office, Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, has become a theological and political pop star. DW looks back on his papacy so far.

Pope Francis through an ipad
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Medichini

Prayer is political. Especially at the border wall between Mexico and the United States. On a visit there two years ago, Pope Francis did not mince his words: "A person who thinks of building walls instead of bridges is not Christian. That is not the Gospel."

The target of the pope's criticism was clear: US President Donald Trump's plans to extend the wall between Mexico and the US. Even Trump's visit to the Vatican in May 2017 failed to tear down the ideological wall between the two men.

The now 81-year-old Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, the first pope from Latin America, has been in office for five years now. Just two minutes after his election on March 13, 2013, it was clear that this Pope "from the end of the Earth," as Bergoglio introduced himself at the time, wasn't like his predecessors.

Read more: Vatileaks sheds light on pope's reform struggles

Pope gives Urbi et Orbi blessing

Revolution on Cuba

Francis is both political and pastoral. He prays at the West Bank Barrier in Bethlehem for peace between Israel and Palestine. He takes in refugees at the Vatican. He engineered the end of the political freeze between Cuba and the USA. And he forgives women who have had abortions.

"Francis wants to overcome divisions, not cement things with walls. He is very political in that sense," said Bernd Klaschka, the former managing director of Adveniat, an organization of the German episcopate that assists the Catholic Church in South America, and a good friend of the pope.

"Francis has a similar role in Latin America to the one Pope John Paul II had in Europe when he contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain there."

Although the barrier between Mexico and the US continues to grow, Francis has succeeded in tearing down walls in Colombia and Cuba. Thanks to his skilful mediation between the parties, decades-old conflicts have been defused. Furthermore, Francis' visit to the Central African Republic in 2015 led to a ceasefire and free elections.

Read more: Pope Francis and the Vatican Revolution

A mural signed by "TV Boy" and depicting Pope Francis and U.S. President Donald Trump kissing, is seen on a wall in downtown Rome
A Rome mural depicting Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump kissingImage: Reuters/T. Gentile

Farewell to Europe

There are also signs of change within the Catholic Church itself, though this only becomes apparent on closer inspection. By naming new cardinals from Latin America, Africa and Asia, and increasingly devolving decision-making power to national and regional episcopal conferences, Francis is undermining the Vatican's hegemony.

Of the 49 cardinals Francis has appointed since becoming pope, the majority came from developing and emerging nations. Up until then, these countries had not received much attention from the Vatican. However, when the 117 members of the papal conclave meet for the next election, these cardinals could deliver the first African pope.

The youngest member of the papal conclave is the Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonne Nzapalainga. "This pontiff loves Africa," he told DW enthusiastically. "Just recently he called on all Catholics and the whole world to pray for peace in Congo and South Sudan."

The bishop of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, embodies the future of the Catholic Church. Nzapalainga was awarded the Aachen Peace Prize in 2015, together with the imam Kobine Layam.

Read more:Pope Francis calls for change to English translation of the Lord's Prayer 

Minefield of Myanmar

Both spiritual leaders have been active in campaigning for the peaceful coexistence of religions in the Central African Republic, which is in the throes of civil war. This is also a trademark of Pope Francis. However, he was not successful in attempting to carry out this mission in Myanmar during his visit there in late 2017.

For the Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, the rejuvenation of the papal conclave is proof that the Francis "will found a dynasty of popes from the developing world." "This pope will change the church," he prophesied in an interview with DW shortly before Francis took office. "With Francis, spring has come to the church."

Could it even be a Brazilian spring? The Catholic Church in Brazil is getting heavily involved behind the scenes. It was the Brazilian cardinal Claudio Hummes, a member of the Papal Commission for Latin America, who suggested the name Francis to the newly-elected Pope Bergoglio.

Read more:Pope Francis uses 'Rohingya' to refer to refugees 

Could married men become priests?

Brazil also jostled to the fore on the pope's first trip abroad when Francis traveled to Rio for World Youth Day in 2013. Now another major event for church policy is on the horizon: the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, to be held in the Vatican in 2019. A decision could be made on allowing married men to be consecrated as priests.

From the Catholic point of view, relaxing the rule on celibacy, which has been in place for centuries, would be a revolution. And precisely this is attracting more and more opponents. They want to prevent a "Copacabana" theology that would involve relaxing dogmas and questioning the traditional teachings of the church.

The archbishop of Accra thinks this is exaggerated. "I know that some conservatives are not happy with his rather very large-hearted approach to pastoral challenges," Gabriel Charles Palmer Buckle confirmed in an interview with DW. But Francis, he said, has simply requested that bishops and priests show compassion. "But the church is not only for conservatives!"