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Pope Francis at 87: 6 joys and 6 sorrows from the past year

Pope Francis-Immaculate Conception

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE | AFP

Anna Kurian - published on 12/16/23

As Pope Francis celebrates his 87th birthday this Sunday, December 17, 2023, we look back at 12 joys and sorrows he has experienced over the past year.
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From the funeral of Benedict XVI in early January to his urgent appeals for the tragic situation in the Holy Land, Pope Francis has experienced sorrow this year. But also joy: his travels in particular have been an opportunity for the Pontiff to rediscover a second youth. 

6 Joys

1
The rejuvenation of Lisbon

If ever a trip was a rejuvenating experience for the Pontiff, it was the World Youth Day in Lisbon from August 2 to 6. “I’ll be coming back rejuvenated,” he assured journalists on the outbound flight.

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile as he arrives for a meeting with volunteers of the World Young Day

During this trip, which took place two months after his major abdominal operation, Peter’s Successor felt free to improvise and shorten his pre-prepared texts. “When I speak, I’m aiming for communication,” he said afterwards. And with young people, he added, he prefers to give “the essential message” rather than “long speeches.” He also spent long moments in the papamobile among the crowds, visibly happy as he blessed children and exuberant young people.

2
With the little Mongolian flock

One of the Argentine Pope’s joys is to go to what he calls the “peripheries.” With his trip to Mongolia from August 31 to September 4, to meet the tiny Catholic community — 1,400 believers — the Pope covered almost 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) to encourage this embryonic Church, focused on the essentials of Christian life.

Pope-Francis-blessing-a-toddler-before-departing-Ulaanbaatar

This first trip by a Pope to Mongolia was also close to his heart because of the country’s proximity to neighboring China. From Ulaanbaatar, he was able to send a message to the whole of Asia, assuring them of the Church’s willingness to walk respectfully alongside them. 

3
A golden rose for Mary

In a highly personal gesture of devotion, the Pope presented his favorite Roman image of the Virgin Mary with a golden rose. On December 8, he went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, at the foot of the icon of the Virgin Mary under the title of Salus Populi Romani, which is so dear to him, to pay this tribute.

Pope-Francis-Basilica-of-Santa-Maria-Maggiore-Pray-Virgin-Salus-populi-romani-Sep-04-23

This initiative was seen as the fulfillment of a wish on the eve of his 87th birthday. All the more so since, a few days later, we learned that the Argentine Pontiff has had his future tomb prepared in this basilica, rather than in St. Peter’s. 

4
The overflowing affection of the people of Marseilles

The Pope had emphasized the point that his trip to Marseille on September 22 and 23 was not a visit to France, but a journey for the migrants of the Mediterranean. Yet, during his two days in France, the “Eldest Daughter of the Church” did indeed win him over. This is evidenced by his joyful exclamation of “Bonjour Marseille! Bonjour la France!” in the Velodrome Stadium at the start of the Mass he presided over.

IMAGE-PAPE-STADE-MARSEILLE

Francis was delighted and touched by the warm welcome he received from the people of Marseille, who were waiting for him in the famous stadium “just like at home.”

5
Tributes to Thérèse de Lisieux

During the year, the 266th Pope allowed himself special moments of devotion to whom he often names as his favorite saint: St. Thérèse of Lisieux. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Carmelite nun’s birth (January 2, 1873), and the 100th anniversary of her beatification (April 29, 1923), he welcomed her relics on June 7 at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square, but also in private at his residence, Santa Marta.

Pope Francis stands by the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux displayed during the weekly general audience on June 7- 2023
Pope Francis stands by the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux displayed during the weekly general audience on June 7- 2023

Francis also signed an apostolic exhortation dedicated entirely to this Doctor of the Church. He took the opportunity to reiterate his leitmotif, inviting Catholics to overcome “a legalistic and moralistic” mindset, because “in the end, only love counts.”

6
The freshness of the circus

The Pontiff was in a weakened state, suffering from acute bronchitis which had forced him to cancel his trip to Dubai and give up reading his own speeches. However, at the general audience on November 29, Francis unexpectedly regained his sparkle thanks to … some circus acts! At the end of the audience, a troupe entered Paul VI Hall, enlivening the stage with juggling and artistic prowess. The Pope was all smiles at the performance.

“The circus expresses a dimension of the human soul; that of gratuitous joy, simple joy, made with the mystique of play,” he found the strength to comment despite his obvious fatigue.

6 Sufferings

1
Farewell to Benedict XVI

Francis’ year began with the funeral of his predecessor on January 5. The celebrations, held in the freezing cold of St. Peter’s Square, were marked by great sobriety. However, Pope Francis’ final gesture of placing his hand on Benedict XVI’s coffin and bowing his head in deep contemplation will remain in our memory.

Funeral-mass-of-Pope-Emeritus-Benedict-XVI-Foto-Messa-Esequiale

And with good reason: as the Argentine Pontiff often said, he appreciated the discreet presence of Joseph Ratzinger, who lived in seclusion in the Vatican Gardens. He would talk to him, often seeking his advice, seeing him as a grandfather from whom he could draw wisdom. His departure left the 266th Pope a little more alone on the Throne of Peter. 

2
The horror of the conflict in Eastern DRC

“Faced with the inhuman violence that you have seen with your own eyes and experienced in your own flesh, we remain in shock.” With these words, the Pope reacted after hearing the horrors suffered by the victims of the violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whom he met in February.

Papa Francisco en Congo
Bendición de un asistente durante una reunión con las víctimas del conflicto en el este de la República Democrática del Congo (RDC)

“There are no words; we must only weep, remaining silent,” he said, visibly marked by what he had just seen and heard. He denounced the ethnic and economic mechanisms that have plunged this region of the country into the abyss. 

3
Two hospitalizations

During the year, the Pontiff was hospitalized twice at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital. The first time, in March, was for a lung ailment that could have been much more serious had treatment been delayed, as he would later explain. During his 10 days at the hospital, for the first time in his pontificate, he even had to forego praying the Angelus with the faithful.

Pope Francis- Pediatric Oncology and Child Neurosurgery Department - Gemelli Hospital

In June, the Pope once again had to return to his hospital room for an operation on his abdomen, agreeing to undergo general anesthesia again, after doing so in 2021. This was definitely an ordeal, since he has repeatedly expressed his reluctance to undergo such major surgery with general anesthesia.

4
Commemoration at the military cemetery

On November 2, in front of the 426 graves of Commonwealth soldiers in the Rome War Cemetery, in the Testaccio district, the Pope mourned the “shattered lives” and “no future” of these men, the majority of whom were “between 20 and 30 years old.” It was here that he chose to celebrate mass for the dead on November 2, under gloomy skies.

Pope Francis at the Rome War Cemetery for a mass to celebrate All Souls Day

There, the Pope said that he had thought of “the parents, the mothers” who had lost their sons on the battlefield, and was saddened by “so many tears.” 

“Wars are always a defeat; there is no total victory. […] One can win […] but behind there is the defeat of the price that has been paid,” he lamented. 

5
A trip canceled at the last minute

Everything was ready for Dubai, where Pope Francis was determined to go to plead the planet’s cause at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) from December 1 to 3. But acute bronchitis forced him to remain at the Vatican.

Much to the Pontiff’s regret, this trip that would have taken place on the international stage, could not happen. Although he sent a number of messages and sent his right-hand man, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the voice of the head of the Catholic Church was naturally weaker because of the lack of his physical presence. 

6
Tears in the Holy Land

After the murderous Hamas attack in Israel on October 7, Pope Francis has not ceased to express his sorrow and to call for the release of the hostages, as well as for a halt to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

VATICAN-POPE-PRAYER-PEACE-SYNOD2023
Pope Francis leads a prayer for Peace at St Peter’s basilica in The Vatican on October 27, 2023.

These appeals have not been heeded, and the Bishop of Rome has even been criticized for his neutrality. His plan to receive the families of Israeli hostages held in Gaza, then, separately, relatives of Palestinians suffering from the conflict in Gaza created frustration on both sides.

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