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As the pope heads to Portugal, he is laying the groundwork for the church’s future and his legacy | AP News

As the pope heads to Portugal, he is laying the groundwork for the church’s future and his legacy | AP News

VATICAN CITY (AP) — When Pope Francis made the first foreign trip of his papacy, to Rio di Janeiro for World Youth Day in 2013, he urged young people to make a “mess” in their local churches, to shake things up even if it ruffled the feathers of their bishops.

As he embarks this week on another edition of World Youth Day, in Lisbon, Portugal, Francis in many ways has taken his own advice to heart. After 10 years as pope, Francis is accelerating his reform agenda and making revolutionary changes in personnel and policy that are definitely shaking things up.

Unencumbered by the shadow of Pope Benedict XVI, who died seven months ago, and despite recovering from a second intestinal surgery in as many years, the 86-year-old Francis is opening a frenetic second half of the year with his Portugal visit. He seems aware that he has a limited sweet spot of time to solidify the changes he believes are necessary for the 21st century church, and is looking to the next generation of faithful and leaders to execute them.

“The sense I get is that this is the consolidation phase of the pontificate,” said papal biographer Austen Ivereigh. “He’s laying the basis now, laying the ground, for the future.”

And no better place to put it on display than at a World Youth Day. The international rally, which St. John Paul II launched in 1986 to galvanize young Catholics in their faith, is expected to draw up to 1 million people for the first post-pandemic event of its kind. Francis’ perennial social justice concerns about climate change, social inequality and fraternity, as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine, are expected to be major themes.

Beyond Portugal, though, Francis’ multifold strategy for laying the groundwork for the future is coming together and will hit significant marks in the coming months.

His global canvassing of rank-and-file Catholics about their vision for the future comes to fruition this October with a big synod at the Vatican. The meeting is intended to give direction on such hot-button issues as the place of LGBTQ+ Catholics and women in the church, and for the first time will feature women and young people voting on proposals alongside bishops.

“I really think that for Pope Francis, he felt that ‘OK, now it’s mature’ and it would be good really to involve all the members, all the people in the synod as members” with the right to vote, said Sister Nathalie Becquart, who is one of the key synod organizers.

To then implement the vision that emerges from the synod, Francis has been naming a slew of unusually young bishops for key archdioceses — in his native Buenos Aires, Madrid and Brussels, among others. At the same time, he’s elevated several cardinals in their 50s — and in some cases their 40s — including the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon who is organizing World Youth Day.

Putting such young clerics in such important positions ensures a generation’s worth of likeminded leadership in the Vatican and archdioceses around the world. While not all are cookie-cutter proteges of Francis, many are seen as similarly pastorally minded and thus more game to implement his reforms, especially as the older generation of bishops and cardinals dies out.

After Francis is gone, the youngest of these new cardinals will have some three decades’ worth of local leadership and conclave votes to select future popes, suggesting a generational and ideological shift in the church leadership is very much underway.

Francis’ most important young “legacy” appointment was that of the Vatican’s new doctrinal czar, Argentine Cardinal-elect Victor Manuel Fernandez ,61. Francis’ theological ghostwriter ran into Vatican problems in the past over questions about his doctrinal orthodoxy, and his appointment sent shockwaves through the conservative and traditionalist wings of the church.

Fernandez sees his appointment as part of Francis’ longer-term agenda: “He is proposing a more inclusive church, more respectful of different ways of living, even of thinking,” Fernandez said in an interview.

Portuguese Cardinal-elect Americo Aguiar, who is in charge of World Youth Day, is another young churchman who also understands his appointment as part of a generational turning point for the Catholic hierarchy.

At age 49 he will become the second-youngest member of the College of Cardinals when he is installed Sept. 30. He is just six months older than the current youngest cardinal, whom Francis elevated this time last year: Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, head of the church in Mongolia where Francis will travel at the end of August.

“My reading of it is that this has to do with young people, it has to do with youth, it has to do with Portugal, it has to do with World Youth Day, it has to do with all of that,” Aguiar said in an interview. “I think that his objective and his underlining was exactly to send a signal to the young people, to every young person who is preparing the day, whether in Portugal or in the world, to feel identified with this decision.”

Francis said as much in his monthly prayer intentions for August, this time dedicated to the Lisbon event.

“In Lisbon, I would like to see a seed for the world’s future,” Francis said. “A world where love is at the center, where we can sense that we are sisters and brothers.”

His words at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio now seem prescient in outlining many of the key pastoral messages Francis has emphasized over the past decade. Delivering a spontaneous, off-the-cuff exhortation to a gathering of Argentine pilgrims that was organized at the last minute, Francis urged the young to get out into the streets, spread their faith and “make a mess.”

“I want to see the church get closer to the people,” Francis said then, speaking in his native Spanish. “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures.”

Realizing the radical nature of his message, Francis apologized to the bishops for what was about to come, even though in the 10 years since, he has only gone farther than anyone could have imagined at the time.

“The true reform of the church, you know, is not a revolution bringing something completely from outside,” said Becquart, the French nun, as she reflected on Francis’ agenda. “It’s a path of change that is a way to unfold tradition, but in a very dynamic way.”


AP reporters Helena Alvez in Lisbon, Portugal, and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed.


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