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Pope Francis' Causes Take On Greater Urgency


Pope Francis turned 80 years old a few days ago, but advancing age, if anything, seems to be driving him with greater urgency. This past year, the pope focused on refugees, on Christian unity and also controversial reform within the church itself. And let's talk about the pope's year and his plans for 2017 with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, who's on the line from Rome. Sylvia, good morning.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's just look back. I mean, this year began with a trip to Mexico by the pope that really made it clear that he was willing to wade into politics, right?

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. He symbolically took the migrant south-north route to the United States by going to Cuidad Juarez on the border with Texas, and there he spoke of the human dignity of immigrants. And on his flight home, asked about Donald Trump, Francis said a person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian, a remark you might remember that Trump described as disgraceful.


POGGIOLI: And then he continued to focus on migrants. He visited the Greek island of Lesbos, which was the front line of the European migrant crisis. And a month later, he accepted a prestigious European Union prize, but he scolded Europe for its treatment of migrants. And in a speech echoing Martin Luther King, he said I have a dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime. So, yeah, he showed he can be quite outspoken on political issues.

GREENE: You know, I hear you mentioned building bridges. One thing he has really focused on is Christian unity. Can you explain exactly what that is and what he's done?

POGGIOLI: Well, he did something this year that both his two predecessors had failed to do - John Paul II and Benedict. Francis met with the Russian patriarch of the Orthodox Church.

And his most recent trip was to Sweden, where he commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. That had triggered one of the biggest splits in Christianity and decades of religious wars. He went so far as to praise Luther, who was once considered a heretic in the church, as a great reformer. So what he's been doing with other Christian churches is trying to heal past wounds and work together toward a shared view of their history.

GREENE: So interesting, though, a lot of the criticism he has gotten as he's been doing many of these things has been from within. I mean, I think back to that document he issued in the spring about families, and that triggered a lot of criticism from conservatives within the church.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. One footnote says that divorced and remarried faithful, who are not recognized by the Catholic Church because it upholds the indissolubility of marriage, might in some particular cases have access to the sacraments.

In the fall, a group of four cardinals wrote to Francis accusing him of sowing confusion on important moral issues, and they asked for clarifications. He did not reply. And one of the signatories, the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, said if the pope does not clarify, he will proceed with what he called a formal correction of the pope after Christmas. Now, that's very close to outright dissent, but I think Francis intends to forge ahead with his reform agenda. Last week, in his Christmas greetings to Vatican administrators, he lashed out against what he called malevolent resistance to his reforms.

GREENE: OK, so which suggests maybe more of the same as we get into the new year.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. One of the topics that he wants to raise, according to many Vatican analysts, is given the shortage of - worldwide shortage of priests is the possibility of a married priesthood. But he needs more backing from his bishops right now. In the meantime, there are going to be preparations this coming year for a bishops meeting in 2018 on the topic of youth and vocations. And that's where the idea of a married clergy could come up and that could open up all sorts of other taboo topics, such as the role of women in the church.

So we have a pope who's very popular among the Catholic faithful and non-Catholics, but there's no doubt he's going to continue to face resistance from conservatives inside the church.

GREENE: OK, speaking to our colleague NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "BRIDGES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.