How a Decade of Pope Francis Has Changed the Church

By Paul Elie, 20 March 2023
Pope Francis receives the Sacrament of Reconciliation in St. Peter's Square. Image: Vatican Media.


The Pontiff has shown that Catholicism is a dynamic institution, whose leader can face unresolved questions openly.

In March, 2014, Pope Francis went to confession in St. Peter’s Basilica. A little more than a year after his election, he was leading a penitential service, which had been organized to encourage Catholics worldwide to fulfill their obligation to confess their sins (in the sacrament now called reconciliation) before Easter. Priests were stationed in confessional booths that had been arrayed around the basilica. The plan was for the Pope to man one himself, but he broke away from the person escorting him to his booth and strode to a different one, where he knelt, crossed himself, and spoke quietly to the priest, startling onlookers, who had expected the Pope to absolve others of their sins—not to confess his own.

On March 13th, Francis celebrates his tenth anniversary as Pope, and such acts have become a hallmark of his tenure. Just as John Paul II altered the profile of the papacy through his world travels, Francis has done so through his spontaneity and candor. To the distress of traditionalists, he has shown that the Church is an institution whose leader can face unresolved questions openly, rather than dismiss them as out of bounds. He has made it clear that a humble, personal search for the right way to live one’s life is a good fit with twenty-first-century Catholicism all the way to the top.

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Paul Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University. His forthcoming book, “Controversy,” is about the arts and religion in the nineteen-eighties.

With thanks to The New Yorker, where this article originally appeared.


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