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Five years on: Pope Francis keeps reaching for the peripheries

HONG KONG (Agencies): “I have the sense that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years.” Pope Francis madd this startling observation during an interview with the Mexican media company, Televisa on the second anniversary of his election to the papacy in 2015. Now, on March 13, as his pontificate reaches its fifth year, the Sunday Examiner wishes him many more! 
After his election on 13 March 2013 and chose the name Francis, he made terms such as: “go out,” “periphery” and “throwaway culture” standard phrases in the papal vocabulary. The world’s media tuned in to every utterance he made and both his informal news conferences and formal documents have stirred controversy and perhaps today, he has more critics within the Church than outside. “Hagan lio,” he said to the millions of young people at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, “Make some noise.” There is no question that this pontificate has done just that.
As he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the apostolic exhortation laying out the vision for his pontificate: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
However, there were two areas of internal Church affairs that he recognised needed immediate attention: the reform of the Roman Curia and the full protection of children and vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse. On the issue of abuse, Pope Francis established the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical sexual abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the survivors. 
Pope Francis proclaimed zero tolerance for abusers and said covering up abuse “is itself an abuse.” Yet there were scandals that threatened to undermine his widespread popularity and his efforts to set the Church on a new course. 
“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents and of all misery,” said the then Cardinal Bergoglio while addressing the conclave that elected him to the pontificate. 
During his five years, he was literally “going out,” making 22 trips outside of Italy and visiting 32 nations. But he found time for regular visits to the peripheries of Rome, both its poor suburbs and its hospitals, rehabilitation centres, prisons and facilities for migrants and refugees.
His desire to reach out has resulted in setting a precedent at the Vatcan. The pope invites Vatican gardeners or garbage collectors or small groups of Catholics to join him most weekday mornings for Mass in the chapel of his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae. The residence was orginally meant to provide housing for cardinals. Pope Francis decided to stay on after the conclave and refused to move to the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
On Holy Thursday each year, he has celebrated Mass at a prison, care facility or refugee centre and washed the feet of patients, inmates or immigrants, both men and women, Catholics and members of other faiths. He also ordered the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments to clarify that the feet of both women and men can be washed at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
During the 2015 to 2016 Year of Mercy, he made a visit one Friday a month to people in particular need, including those at a school for the blind, a neonatal intensive care unit, a community of recovering alcoholics, a children’s group home and a community for women rescued from traffickers who forced them into prostitution. Once the Year of Mercy ended, the pope continued the visits, although not always every month.
In September 2015 as waves of migrants and refugees were struggling and dying to reach Europe, Pope Francis asked every parish and religious community in Europe to consider offering hospitality to one family. The Vatican offered apartments and support to a family from Syria and a family from Eritrea. Then, seven months later, he visited a refugee centre on the island of Lesbos, Greece, and brought 12 refugees back to Rome on the plane with him.
Less than three months into his pontificate, the pope began denouncing the “throwaway culture,” saying at a general audience: “Human life, the person are no longer seen as primary values to be respected and protected, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful—like an unborn child—or are no longer useful—like an old person.” 
In the first three years of his papacy, he published three major documents: Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel); Laudato Si’, (Praise Be: On Care for Our Common Home); and Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love on Love in the Family). 
His document on the family was met with severe criticism especially regarding ministry to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and the possibility that, under some conditions, some of those Catholics could return to the sacraments. Critics insisted that allowing them to receive the sacraments amounted to changing fundamental Church teaching about marriage, sexuality and the nature of the sacraments.
But in December, the Vatican posted on its website the guidelines for interpreting Amoris Laetitia developed by a group of Argentinian bishops, as well as Pope Francis’ letter to them describing the guidelines as “authentic magisterium.”
In the document and throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized God’s mercy and the power of the sacraments to spur conversion and nourish Christians as they try to progress in holiness.
Like all popes, Pope Francis frequently urges Catholics to go to confession, telling them it is not a “torture chamber.” And he repeatedly gives priests blunt advice about being welcoming and merciful to those who approach the confessional.
Like Pope St. John Paul did each Lent, Pope Francis hears confessions in St. Peter’s Basilica. But, he surprised even his closest aides when, beginning in 2014, instead of going to the confessional to welcome the first penitent, he turned and went to confession himself.
He also has surprised people by being completely honest about his age. In April 2017, when he was still 80-years-old, he told Italian young people that while they are preparing for the future, “at my age we are preparing to go.” The young people present objected loudly. “No?” the pope responded, “Who can guarantee life? No one.”
From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has expressed love and admiration for retired Pope Benedict XVI. Returning from South Korea in 2014, he said Pope Benedict’s honest, “yet also humble and courageous” gesture of resigning cleared a path for later popes to do the same.
“You can ask me: ‘What if one day you don’t feel prepared to go on?’” he told the reporters travelling with him. “I would do the same, I would do the same! I will pray hard over it, but I would do the same thing. He (Pope Benedict) opened a door which is institutional, not exceptional.”

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