Under a hard rain and a sea of colorful umbrellas in St. Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013, the Catholic church changed its guard with the election of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first pope ever to take the name Francis.
The 77-year-old was elected as the 266th man to lead the Roman Catholic Church through secret burned ballots in an archaic, ritualistic conclave, but it was clear from the start that his election was nothing short of revolutionary. He was elected after the shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first such living-pope transition in more than 400 years. Francis is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit and the first non-European to hold the position since the 8th century.
Almost immediately, it was clear he was also divisive. His personal choices sent strong messages. By refusing the usual gold cross popes are expected to wear and opting for simple silver instead, he made it clear that the days of high living and big spending by the church elite were over. By making sure his black pants showed through his white papal cassock to remind people he was still a priest, he made the point that he wanted his bishops and cardinals to focus on ministry, not job titles or “clericalism,” which he said early on was the bane of the church’s existence.
While Benedict wore red Prada slippers, Francis opted for the same soft leather loafers he’d been pounding the pavement of Buenos Aires with for decades. He paid his own hotel bill, carried his own satchel, and he opted for a room in the Santa Marta residence among the nuns and visiting clergy inside Vatican City over the apostolic apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. His first apostolic voyage was to the island of Lampedusa to draw attention to migrants and refugees, which has been a cornerstone of his papacy despite a global shift towards building walls and bolstering border controls. He even suggested that the then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump was “not a Christian” for promising to build a wall on the Mexican border.
He made quick friends and even quicker enemies with his attempts to reform the archaic curia, replacing career clerics in top positions with moderate representatives from the global church. But what angers the conservatives, who have run the church with an iron fist and a blind eye for so long, is how he has bent the rules. He made gays feel more welcome than any pontiff in the past, ditching language like “intrinsically disordered” to describe homosexuality for his now infamous “who am I to judge?” response when he was asked about a devout priest who happened to be gay. He suggested divorced and remarried Catholics could take communion and he allowed repentant women to ask forgiveness for having abortions.
For a time, it seemed like the Francis way would win. But conservative Catholics, led by American conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke, have been making ground, openly questioning his authority and filing a formal complaint known as dubia with the Roman Curia about his alleged missteps on doctrine. Someone even plastered the streets of Rome with ugly posters questioning his motives. More recently, there have been calls for his own resignation over his alleged indifference to clerical sex abuse.
There was a brief moment early on in his papacy when it looked like he might unite the church as a devout outsider who could somehow bridge the gap between the faithful and their fathers. Now, more than five years into his papacy, he leads a church crippled by systemic clerical sex abuse scandals and which has never been more divided. Insiders say Francis’s church is one step away from a schism and Francis, who often errs on the side of silence and is prone to mixed messaging, has seen his approval rating plummet in recent months, according to recent Gallup polls.
Still, everything that led to his election in 2013, from Benedict’s shocking resignation to his hands-on and often controversial approach, has changed the church in ways yet too soon to measure.