What to expect in 2016: the top ten predictable church stories

[Austen Ivereigh] While it’s impossible to predict most of what will happen in 2016 — not least because Pope Francis likes to improvise — some of the main Catholic stories this year are already in the diary. These are my ‘top ten’ for 2016:

  1. The Pope’s ‘first book’  — at least, the first one he has authored as pope — is in name of God is mercyreality a dialogue with Vaticanist Andrea Tornielli, which draws on Pope Francis’s life as a priest and bishop to discuss the theme of mercy. At 176 pages, The Name of God is Mercy is not long and whether it contains newsworthy revelations is not yet clear, but it’s sure to be talked about. Out on 12 January.
  2. Spotlight, the much-talked about movie documenting the Boston Globe‘s exposure of the clerical sex abuse crisis in 2001, hits UK screens on 29 January. Whether or not it Spotlightpulls in the crowds to multiplexes, the searing story of collusion and cover-up in Boston’s Catholic establishment is sure to reawaken discussion of a pain that hasn’t gone away. (See CV Comment here).
  3. Pope Francis’s trip to Mexico on February 12-17 is one of only two big papal journeys (the other is to Krakow – see below) the Vatican has announced for this year. Mexico is a key country — the world’s second largest Church Mexico logo(after Brazil) and still one of its most aggressively secularist states. Francis is sure of a hero’s welcome, but how the trip is read north of the Rio Grande may turn out to be more important, especially when Francis addresses immigration at Ciudad Juárez on the US-Mexico border. Before then there is a huge Mass at the Basilica of Guadalupe, a visit to Chiapas in the south (where indigenous people have long been at odds with the central state) and Morelia, a city in the grip of narco violence. For drama, pictures and words, Mexico is set to be one of the papal set-pieces of 2016.
  4. The apostolic exhortation on the family — which could well be called ‘The Joy of the Family’, as some cardinals suggested at the last synod — is likely to be out in the first half of 2016, possibly before Easter. The synod fathers expressly handed over to Francis the task of resolving deep-seated disagreements that appeared during that process, and this first updating of church teaching on the family since St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio in 1981 will be one of the most closely-read (and hotly debated) papal documents in recent times.
  5. Shake-up in Vatican communications. After finances, communications are the next stage in the curial reform. Just before Christmas, it was announced that Greg
    Greg Burke, the new vice-director of the Holy See press office

    Greg Burke, the new vice-director of the Holy See press office

    Burke, an American layman, would be taking the number two job in the Holy See Press Office, and a new director for Vatican’s TV Centre (CTV) was appointed. They are the first moves ordered by the powerful new Secretariat for Communications, head by former CTV boss Msgr Dario Viganò, which will shortly be moving its office into the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which in turn is likely to be closed down sometime this year. Expect a raft of further announcements in 2016 that will aim to unify and consolidate the Vatican’s overlapping and fragmented media outlets.

  6. World Youth Day in Krákow. The Church’s global gathering of 4m young people in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013 was Pope Francis’s first foreign trip, and in many ways setKrakowthe tone for the pontificate. WYD in Krakow is set to be a less electrifying affair — this is Poland, not Brazil, and the Poles are rather less certain about Francis — but a big event nonetheless, and key to the success of the Jubilee of Mercy. Krákow is the city not just of St John Paul II but of St Faustina Kowalska, whose diary led to the Divine Mercy devotion (see John Allen here). Francis’s understanding of mercy has a rather different tone and emphasis, and the mix will be fascinating. This will also be a rare opportunity for Francis to spend time in a non-Italian European city, which he has barely done since his election (the day trip to Strasbourg was a visit to an institution rather than a place). Krákow could be the moment when Europeans feel the Pope loves them too.
  7. Cardinals discussing decentralization. The meetings of Pope Francis’s kitchen cabinet of nine cardinals – known as the “C9” — will be dominated in the first half of G82016 by  the Pope’s call in Evangelii Gaudium for a “healthy decentralization” of church governance. Although unlikely to break out into mainstream headlines, this discussion is key to the broader curial restructuring the C9 has promised. Once there is clarity over what functions are proper to Rome and what to the local Church, it will be easier to work out what the Vatican is supposed to be doing. There are healthy disagreements within the C9 on this question, and the debate is likely to be vigorous. But given the centripetal direction of church governance over the last 150 years, the fact that the discussion is taking place at all is remarkable.
  8. Other trips. Beyond Mexico and Poland, the Pope’s travel schedule is far from clear. He has promised to visit Armenia in 2016, possibly on the 101th anniversary of its genocide in April. Another South-American visit is also possible, perhaps to Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, or even to his own Argentina (together with Chile and Uruguay). But equally, one of those could be joined to his visit to Aparecida, Brazil, for the 300th anniversary of its apparitions in 2017. But the best guess is that 2016 will involve rather less travel than in 2015, to give Francis a chance to focus on curial reform and the Jubilee of Mercy. “Trips at my age aren’t healthy,” the Pope confessed on his way back from Africa. “One can survive them but they are leaving their mark.
  9. A November consistory. Ceremonies to appoint more cardinals, known as consistories, usually take place in February, but Francis could well opt for November, when eight cardinals will have reached the non-voting age of 80, giving the Pope scope for new red-hat appointments, and commentators the opportunity to speculate on the future Church the Pope wants to shape.
  10. 440px-MotherTeresa_094Canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa, possibly in the first week of September (see AP report), the anniversary of her death. Declaring the world’s most famous religious sister, the icon of mercy, a saint, will make a fitting conclusion to the Jubilee, while giving Francis a opportunity to extol a powerful woman. (“I would have been afraid to have had her as my superior, since she was so tough”, Francis  — who met her at a synod in 1994 — once said). The beatification Mass for the Albanian-born nun was one of the best-attended ever at the Vatican, and this ceremony is likely to break even more records, proving, if nothing else, that at a time when people are afraid to gather for fear of terrorism, mercy can still draw the crowds.

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