Five predictions for the unpredictable Pope Francis in 2016
Look for the next US cardinal to be from an unexpected place
Given his age, it’s likely the pope will have a health issue
He could influence US elections, especially on immigration
[He may offer a “hand” to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics and pardon some of the current Vatileaks defendants]
Resistance to his changes will continue, but shift
By John L. Allen Jr.
December 6, 2015
Last week I was in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, where I’ve been speaking at First Friday clubs for several years. My wife Shannon, who handles my speaking calendar, is very loyal to these folks, and insisted that I offer them something new and original.
In response, I did something that’s basically an act of madness: I delivered a set of predictions for 2016 regarding the almost metaphysically unpredictable Pope Francis.
Spousal obedience, as it turns out, trumped professional caution. Herewith, those five forecasts for a pope of surprises in the New Year.
1. The next US cardinal Francis names will be a shocker.
It’s not clear whether Francis will create new cardinals in 2016, or whether one of them would be an American. If so, however, it probably won’t be anyone people are expecting — Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, for instance, or Blase Cupich in Chicago [or McElory in San Diego?].
When distributing red hats, Francis likes to bypass the usual centers of power. In Italy, Turin and Venice don’t have cardinals, but Perugia and Ancona do. In the Philippines, Francis ignored Cebu and named a cardinal in Cotabato. In Haiti, he skipped the capital, Port-au-Prince, in favor of the small diocese of Les Cayes.
If there is a new American cardinal, look for him to be from some place out of the ordinary. One good candidate would be Bishop Gerald Kicanas in Tucson, Arizona, both to make a statement about the hardships of immigrants who cross the border there, and also to lift up a social justice-oriented bishop cut from the pope’s own cloth.
2. Francis will have a health issue.
So far, this pope has not had a serious health crisis. A bogus report in October of a benign brain tumor doesn’t count, since it fell apart almost as soon as it appeared.
On the other hand, Francis turns 79 on Dec. 17 and keeps up a schedule that would destroy people half his age. Those closest to Francis have long said they’re worried about the pope not taking care of himself, for instance by canceling his summer vacation at Castel Gandolfo. Watching him up close, he often seems visibly fatigued, and his struggles with sciatica seem more pronounced.
At some point, physical reality may assert itself and compel the pontiff to take some time off. If that happens, it won’t necessarily mean the end is near, but simply that he’s managing his time and energy more carefully.
3. The pope will be a player in the US elections.
Pope Francis is likely to emerge as a major factor in the US elections in 2016, an especially plausible prospect given that five of the GOP contenders are Catholic (Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and George Pataki; Bobby Jindal dropped out of the race in November).
One moment when the pope appears destined to inject himself into the race will come in February, when he travels to Mexico. The trip will feature a stop in Ciudad Juarez at the US/Mexico border, where Francis will make a major statement about immigration.
At that same moment, Americans will be heading to the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa. Media coverage will certainly draw the connection, turning the pontiff into a political point of reference.
4. The pope will make two significant gestures of mercy.
Francis opens his special jubilee Year of Mercy Tuesday, and at least two unscripted papal gestures of compassion may roll out at some point along the way.
First, he may offer a hand to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The question of whether they could receive Communion was hotly debated at the recent Synods of Bishops on the family, and while there was no consensus, there was agreement that the Church needs to do a better job of making them feel included.
Second, and possibly more quickly, Francis may offer pardons to least some of the five people currently facing a Vatican criminal trial for leaking secrets. They include three people who served on a papal commission on Vatican finances and two Italian journalists who published books based on the commission’s confidential reports.
When similar charges were brought against Benedict XVI’s butler in 2012, Benedict pardoned him, and especially in a Year of Mercy, Francis may feel obliged to follow suit. On the other hand, much depends on what emerges in the trial. If it turns out, for example, that the journalists used sleazy tactics, or the former papal advisers profited, Francis may be in a less forgiving mood.
5. Resistance to Francis’ initiatives will continue, but shift.
All along, there’s been resistance to Francis in some quarters inside and outside the Catholic Church. In 2016, that blowback will almost certainly continue, but it may become less about left vs. right and more about north vs. south and rich vs. poor.
A sign of things to come appeared before Francis’ November trip to Africa with a controversial essay by an editor for a web site operated by the largely progressive German bishops’ conference, suggesting that Francis may have an overly romanticized vision of the global South and an overly negative approach to Europe.
Later, when Francis in Africa extolled the wisdom of poor communities, some Catholic commentators wondered aloud when he might also acknowledge the virtues and generosity of believers from the middle class and above.
In 2016, Francis may find that the fires he has to put out are less about ideology, and more about geography and class.
If any of these predictions come true, remember you heard it here first. When they almost inevitably don’t, try to recall instead that it’s supposed to be a Year of Mercy!