It is Easter Sunday in St Peter’s Basilica, and the church is completely empty.
On the most important day of the Catholic calendar, in the most important site in the Catholic world, the man with the most important role in the Catholic Church steps up to a simple glass podium and starts speaking to nobody.
‘This isn’t a time for self-centredness,’ says Pope Francis, ‘because the challenge we’re facing is shared by all.’
As he speaks, he occasionally glances up from his pulpit and looks around, as if he is addressing a congregation. But he isn’t – not physically, at least.
The pontiff’s address on April 12 2020, in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, provided one of the most indelible and extraordinary images so far in his papacy.
Videos of him speaking to the vast, deserted space were shown around the world, meaning his words probably reached more people than they otherwise would have done.
But ahead of the 10th anniversary of Francis’s appointment to the role on Monday, it is tempting to ask how well his 2020 Easter address works as a metaphor for his papacy.
Has the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics – criticised by some for moving away from the conservative stance of his two predecessors, and by others for not going further in the opposite direction – actually made an impact during his time in the office?
Or has he just been speaking to an empty basilica?
Dr Gregory Ryan from the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University said Francis wields an almost unique form of power just by virtue of his position.
‘When the pope speaks, by and large people listen, even if it’s not what they want to hear,’ he said.
‘There’s never been a shortage of people listening and criticising.
‘But in a way that’s not true of any other religious leader – with the possible exception of the Dalai Lama – he’s got a global audience and there’s a certain degree of moral authority.’
Despite that, the ways in which the world reacts to what this pope says marks him apart from those who came immediately before him.
The backlash to Francis is unlike anything seen before in modern times – not necessarily for its ferocity, said Dr Ryan, but for its source.
He said: ‘Several of the voices who are now vociferously exercising their right to criticise the pope are the same people who, in a previous generation, were trying to emphasise that the role of Catholic clergy and Catholic bishops was to be in line and not to dissent from papal teaching.
‘That’s one of the things that’s turned around.
‘There was criticism of Benedict and John Paul II, but it tended to come from theologians, academics and activists.
‘What’s unique here is that some of it is coming from the bishops as well.’
That partially stems from his remarks on some of the most contentious topics in the church, and particularly LGBTQ+ issues.
Francis made his most famous comment on that subject a little more than four months after his election when, on a flight back from Rio de Janeiro, a journalist asked him about gay priests.
‘If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will,’ the pope asked, ‘who am I to judge?’
It was the first time a pontiff had ever used the word ‘gay’ in reference to sexuality.
Since then, he has made a number of statements that appear to contradict Vatican teachings which say ‘homosexual acts’ are ‘acts of grave depravity’.
In 2020, he voiced support for civil unions for same-sex couples, and in January he described laws criminalising homosexuality as ‘unjust’.
But despite his open calls for understanding and acceptance of people in the LGBTQ+ community, Francis hasn’t attempted to make any bold doctrinal changes – an approach typical of his papacy, according to Dr Ryan.
He said: ‘The two straightforward positions you might expect someone to take would be to simply reinforce church teaching, or to overturn that and say something new, something definitive and concrete.
‘What Francis has done is he’s changed the language that’s being used, and seen the question in a different way.
‘He takes an indirect approach, which I think has a potentially more transformative power on the church.’
According to Dr Ryan, the pope prefers to use the power of his position to set a process in motion, ‘aware it will take time to come to fruition’. As the saying goes, the church thinks in centuries.
That has led to some organisations expressing frustration that the church continues to use such offensive language to describe same-sex relationships, while still seeing positives.
At an event for LGBT Catholics in 2017, the gay priest Bryan Massingale paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. to make the point, saying: ‘We ain’t where we wanna be, but we ain’t where we used to be.’
The same approach applies to Francis’s headline-grabbing attitude to environmentalism – though he’s made more of an effort to deliberately place the planet at the centre of the church’s attention.
In June 2015, the pontiff published Laudato Si’, an encyclical – meaning a letter essentially addressed to the entire Roman Catholic church – giving his thoughts on humanity’s attitude towards the Earth.
Scathingly, he describes the planet as being ‘among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor’, and condemns ‘our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her’.
And in a pre-Greta Thunberg age, the editor of the academic journal Science declared Francis ‘our most visible champion for mitigating climate change’.
However, within his own church, reaction was more mixed.
A 2021 study that analysed 12,077 columns written by Catholic bishops between 2014 and 2019 found they were, as a group, ‘generally silent about climate change’ – and when they did discuss it, they often distanced themselves from teachings like Laudato Si’.
Some of this rejection can be blamed on ideological opposition from conservatives, but Dr Ryan said it’s also a reaction to a change in inertia and a ‘cultural shift’.
‘His style is very much, in a sense, trying to get the church to deepen its understanding of these issues and then for the church to change,’ he said.
‘It’s good psychology, we do it with our children all the time.
‘It’s trying to get them to think they’re wanting to do something rather than they’re just doing it because they’re told to – you try to make it seem like it’s their idea.’
A decade ago, as people around the world marvelled at the new head of the Vatican and his distaste for the more extravagant elements of his role, commentators wondered how the Catholic church would cope with such radical change.
But to Dr Ryan, the most dramatic thing Francis has done is take the drama out of the papacy, recasting it as just one part of the church which is constantly in conversation with the other parts.
He said: ‘I think he is trying to initiate a cultural change, and cultural changes are much more difficult to undo.
‘So there is a risk that without Francis constantly initiating things, the momentum will run out and we’ll go back to a more top-down approach.
‘But the other possibility is that precisely by doing all this work, it decentres it and puts it out of a single point of control, into the people, and you can’t get it back.’
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