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Updated: Feb 18, 2020

When he was elected in 2013 at the age of 76, Pope Francis was not expected to be a globe-trotting pope. After all, this was a man who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, traveled infrequently to Rome because he considered such trips an extravagance.

But in Panama last week, the pope logged his 26th foreign trip – and he shows no sign of slowing down. He plans to make four more trips before the middle of this year, including a February visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a pope to the Arab peninsula.

In the second half of 2019, the pope is said to be considering trips to Uganda, Mozambique and Japan.

Francis is putting on miles at a rate faster than any pope in history. Even Pope John Paul II, whose international travels turned the papacy into a global ministry, didn’t reach his 30th foreign trip until nearly eight years in office.

Most of Pope Francis’ trips have been outside Europe – meaning long-distance flights, jet lag and plenty of time for airborne press conferences.

Speaking to reporters on his first such trip in 2013, Francis seemed to accept international travel as part of the modern papal job description. He said John Paul II had made it clear that the pope must first of all be a “great missionary.”

“He was a missionary, a man who carried the Gospel everywhere, as you know better than I. How many trips did he make? But he went! He felt this fire of carrying forth the Word of the Lord. He was like Paul, like Saint Paul, he was such a man; for me this is something great,” Francis said.

Pope Francis has offered some clarity about how far he’ll go on the issue of married priests.

Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Panama to Rome Jan. 27, the pope said he did not agree with those who want to make priestly celibacy “optional” throughout the Latin-rite church.

The pope was asked whether he could envision the Catholic Church adopting the practice of Orthodox Churches, in which priestly candidates can choose whether to marry or remain celibate – a choice made before they are ordained as deacons.

“My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” the pope said. “That is what I think. I will not do it and this remains clear. Am I closed minded? Perhaps, but I don’t feel that I can make this decision before God.”

But he left the door open to ordaining married men as an exception to the celibacy rule, in local areas of great pastoral need.

“I think the question should be open in places where there is a pastoral problem because of the lack of priests. I’m not saying that we have to do it, because I have not reflected and prayed about this sufficiently, but theologians have to study this,” he said.

He said that for local church communities, the essential question is access to Mass and the sacraments. “Where there is not the Eucharist … who will make the Eucharist?” he said.

The issue is expected to be raised during a regional Synod of Bishops from the Amazon region, to be held at the Vatican in October. The region faces a severe shortage of priests, and a preparatory document for the synod has called for “courageous, daring and fearless” proposals to deal with pastoral challenges.

If such an exception is granted in the Amazon region, many believe it will place the church on a path of change regarding the overall celibacy rule.

The Catholic Church already has married priests. Generally, Catholic Eastern churches allow married men to be ordained. Celibacy in the Latin-rite church – to which the vast majority of Catholics belong – has been a tradition for many centuries, and a topic of increasing theological debate for decades.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

There are signs that Vatican officials preparing the February summit on sex abuse hope the event will launch a new role for Catholic laity.

That would be a significant development in a scandal that, as Pope Francis himself has said, has been perpetuated by clericalism.

At first glance, the Feb. 21-24 summit looks like another “bishops monitoring the bishops” event. But planners have quietly taken steps to involve lay experts, and are signaling a more open approach to lay authority and supervision when it comes to dealing with accusations of clerical sex abuse.

In a recent interview with America magazine, Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the meeting’s organizers, said the need for transparency and accountability on sex abuse requires bishops to “empower the lay people”:

“We bishops need to approach the issue of the sexual abuse of minors together as churches, and we also need to adopt what Pope Francis is calling ‘a synodal approach,’ that is we cannot do it alone in our community, we need also to empower the lay people, the laity, in order to help us be good stewards.”

Scicluna repeated the point for emphasis: “Synodality means that we appreciate the different charisms and gifts of the laity, their expertise, and that we empower them to join bishops in the role of stewardship.”

As if to anticipate the objections of conservatives, the archbishop added: “It’s not a question of (the laity) having control over the hierarchy, it is the hierarchy empowering and facilitating the sharing of charisms which the Spirit also gives to the laity, because there are gifts there that will help issues of prevention and safeguarding that we need to bring on board, and we need to facilitate as bishops.”

What that means in terms of practical responsibility and authority remains to be seen. Pope Francis did name two Vatican lay women to help prepare the summit: Dr. Gabriella Gambino and Dr. Linda Ghisoni, both undersecretaries in the Vatican’s office for Laity, Family and Life.

A key question is whether the pope’s “synodality” vision will trump the more legalistic approach of Vatican canon lawyers when it comes to lay responsibility regarding bishops’ decision-making and accountability.

It was Archbishop Scicluna who, in an address to canon lawyers in 2013, pointed out that under church law bishops can lose their office for abuse or negligence in ministry, and in this sense are seen as accountable to their faithful.

Over the last year, “more involvement by the laity” has been a popular phrase in the church’s discussion of sexual abuse, and it’s come from all quarters – the pope, U.S. bishops, victims’ advocacy groups and leading Catholics. Now it needs to be translated into meaningful measures.

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