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A look back at Pope Francis's legacy as he marks 10 years of papacy


Tomorrow, Pope Francis will mark 10 years as leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on the papacy that, over the last decade, has steered the church leftward after more than three decades of conservative leadership.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In St. Peter's Square, a group of young American Catholics are among thousands waiting for Pope Francis to deliver his Sunday message. Gillian Caruso thinks he's doing a great job.

GILLIAN CARUSO: He came out with a statement that we were talking about at dinner last night, that no pope has ever said, about gay people not being a sin. So that was pretty cool.

POGGIOLI: Her friend Carolyn Cree agrees.

CAROLYN CREE: Especially in this time, like, everyone just feels supported by him, you know?

POGGIOLI: The women are referring to the pope's recent denunciation of laws criminalizing LGBT people as an injustice and a sin because they're children of God, and God loves them.


POGGIOLI: His message over, Francis gives his signature signoff.

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: "Don't forget to pray for me," he says. "Have a great meal, and arrivederci." And the 86-year-old pope returns to the modest guest house where he has chosen to live rather than the Apostolic Palace. In this same square 10 years ago, the new pope introduced himself as coming from the end of the world.


FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).


FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: The Argentine Jorge Bergoglio became the first non-European pontiff in more than a millennium. Since then, says Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology of Villanova University, Francis has made clear the old world no longer calls the shots on what's Catholic and what's not.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: The Western Hemisphere, the North Atlantic, a certain bourgeois Catholicism - he has rejected that in the most radical term.

POGGIOLI: The first Jesuit pope, and the first to take the name Francis, after the saint of the poor, was elected with a mandate to clean up a scandal-ridden Vatican administration. Papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher Marco Politi says Francis' reforms of the Vatican Bank are radical.

MARCO POLITI: It is no more possible that mafia money flows through the Vatican Bank or corruption money for political parties in Italy like it was in the past.

POGGIOLI: And it's not only on financial issues that Francis has left his mark.

POLITI: He has wiped off from the table all the obsession of the Catholic Church about sexual issues.

POGGIOLI: Shunning the culture wars, Politi says, rarely does Francis speak about birth control or abortion.

POLITI: He doesn't change the letter of some church documents. But with his gestures or with his words, he paves the way to new attitudes.

POGGIOLI: Francis has traveled widely across the globe, mostly to the peripheries where Catholics are few and feel marginalized. He has promoted outreach to other religions - in particular, intensifying dialogue with Muslims. And yet, Francis has proved perhaps more than his cardinal electors had bargained for. He has angered many conservatives inside and outside the church for his scathing critiques of unfettered capitalism and his staunch environmentalism.


FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Once capital becomes an idol and guides people's decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society. It sets people against one another. It even puts at risk our common home - our sister, Mother Earth.

POGGIOLI: And he has prayed on the Mexican side of the U.S. border.


FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: He said afterwards, a person who only builds walls and not bridges is not Christian...


FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

POGGIOLI: ...A remark seen as a rebuke of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. Within the church, he has opened the door slightly to divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. And he's making the church less Vatican-centric, says Politi, delegating more decisions to bishops.

POLITI: It is a slow process of decentralization.

POGGIOLI: The pope has opened up the church administration with many women in leadership positions, and he has declared war on clericalism - that old boys network of priests, bishops and cardinals - the privileged caste that rules over an unquestioning flock.

DAVID GIBSON: This kind of elitism is something that drives Pope Francis crazy.

POGGIOLI: David Gibson is the director of Fordham University's Center on Religion and Culture. He says Francis considers clericalism the major sin in the church - the cause of abuse of power and the sexual abuse of minors that has convulsed Catholicism throughout the world. Francis tackled the cover-ups of clerical abusers as much as their crimes, says Gibson, by finally holding those responsible accountable. But resistance to this papacy is intense.

GIBSON: The opposition to Francis is increasingly vocal, and the opposition is very strong. It's very passionate. It's everything goes.

POGGIOLI: Francis' traditionalist adversaries accuse him of sowing confusion among the faithful by focusing on pastoral issues rather than doctrine. An anonymous memo published last year, apparently written by the late Australian Cardinal George Pell, called this papacy a catastrophe. German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, removed by Francis as Vatican theological watchdog, went public last October. In an interview with the conservative Catholic cable TV network EWTN, he poured scorn on what he sees as Francis' progressive agenda.


GERHARD MULLER: The occupation of the Catholic Church is a hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ. And they think the doctrine is only, like, a program of a political party who can change it according to their voters.

POGGIOLI: Some Vatican observers say a civil war is underway in the Catholic Church as his adversaries step up efforts to push the pope to resign. But, says Gibson, time is on Francis' side. The longer he stays, the more cardinals he'll appoint who will choose his successor.

GIBSON: So time equals power and influence in the Catholic Church, and the conservatives feel they're running out of time.

POGGIOLI: There's one issue where Francis has been sharply criticized by liberals and conservatives - his initial reluctance not to name Russia as the aggressor in Ukraine. The Vatican has stressed the Holy See's traditional role as mediator in international disputes. But theologian Massimo Fagioli says it was a serious misstep. He says it showed the Argentine pope had not fully grasped the historical implications of war breaking out yet again in Europe.

FAGGIOLI: And when a political leader, as the pope is - when he speaks about wars, when he speaks on issues that are so serious, every word should be measured very carefully.

POGGIOLI: The pope's most ambitious project is the ongoing, vast global consultation on the church's future culminating with two bishops assemblies at the Vatican this year and next. Francis' goal is a more inclusive church where everyone can be heard and share in the decision making. The Conservatives will likely do all they can to thwart the pope's agenda.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. 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.