Pope Francis’ By the Numbers: The Fourth Installment of the March Madness Series

Pope Francis’ By the Numbers: The Fourth Installment of the March Madness Series March 10, 2023

Since 2003, every NCAA tournament winner scored above identified benchmarks in field goal percentage, points per game, and total rebounds. It only makes sense that a team who is strong on the fundamentals of scoring will end up with the trophy. What do Pope Francis’ stats during his first decade say about what is yet to come?

Pope Francis before a crowd
Pope Francis appears before a crowd – Agatha Depine/Unsplash

Pope Francis’ By the Numbers

Francis’ Firsts

    • First pope from the Americas
    • First, people from the Southern hemisphere
    • First pope ordained after Vatican II
    • First pope named Francis
    • First Jesuit pope

Francis’ Travels

    • 60 different countries visited
    • 6 countries for whom his visit was the first by any pope

Francis’ Appointments

    • 95 new cardinals
    • 911 new saints canonized (including a group of 800 martyrs)

Francis’ Governance

    • 39 Motu proprio – This is a papal document signed by the pope but created without consultation with others and lacking the papal seal. Many during this papacy so far seek to decentralize the power of the Vatican. Francis has made far more of these statements than John Paul II, who served nearly three times longer.
    • 10% – pay cut for cardinals instituted while also cutting salaries for other Vatican employees
    • $45 – cap on the value of gifts to the Vatican that can be accepted

These numbers indeed point to Pope Francis’ priorities, but there are a couple of others that make an even more critical statement going into the “tournament.”

  • 0 Church doctrines changed
  • 3 Ordinary General Synods of Bishops convened


Pope Francis on Lasting Change

The Catholic Church makes significant changes about as quickly as a family of snails can run uphill. Like an enormous chip on choppy water, the Church turns into the waves to bring about change in glacial time.

On one hand, reform-minded Catholics are disappointed that Francis hasn’t changed Church teachings, at least not yet. Many hoped for changes related to contraception, acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and those remarried after divorce, marriage for priests, and female ordination.

But on the other hand, turning the Ship of Church too quickly could cause it to capsize. I’m not smart enough to understand why, but it has something to do with terminal velocity, drag force, and maybe gremlins.

Instead of doctrinal change, Francis has focused on “synodality.”

An Aside About Language

Leave it to Catholics to use big words where smaller ones would suffice. We use “transubstantion” to describe what happens during the consecration of the Eucharist. We use “monstrance” to name gold star-shaped vessel that holds consecrated hosts. We call the gathering of cardinals to elect a new pope a “conclave.” And in an attempt to make the creed more accessible, we somehow thought that adding the word “consubstantial” would clarify things.

Back to Major Change

A synod is a meeting of bishops to discuss important things. Simple concept, fancy word. Francis has convened three “ordinary, general synods,” which means they cover universal topics, not particular to a specific region. He’s convened three:

  1. The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World (2014)
  2. Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment (2018)
  3. For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission (2023, 2024)

It’s that last one that’s most interesting to me. Basically, it’s a listening session about being a listening Church. I love the M.C. Escher-type metalogic. Listening to people about how we listen to people? Another is that Pope Francis decided to add a year to the process; it will now end in 2024. Clearly, that means it’s important to him.

A New Experience

The most fascinating thing of all is that it’s the only one I remember hearing much about or being involved in. I was excited when my parish asked for everyone’s input. My husband asked what I was working on when typing my answers online. “Pope Francis wants my opinion on stuff. I’m very busy and important.”

Although we both chuckled, I was sincerely grateful for the opportunity.

Thomas Reese reporting for Religion World News called this synod “the greatest gamble of this papacy.” He explains that before Francis, synods of bishops were more show than substance. In effect, they were stage performances designed to demonstrate loyalty to the pope through bishops’ public statements. Very little authentic discussion took place. Pope John Paul II even read books while bishops addressed the assembly.

Reese explains, “For Francis, you might say that the synodal process is more important than the results. For Americans, who are result oriented, this is unintelligible. Francis sees the experience of prayer, listening and discernment as a way of healing divisions and building the Christian community. If we are not true to the process, the results are meaningless.”

In other words, Pope Francis may focus less on turning the ship and more on calming the waters. He seems to be playing the long game and may wish to leave the ship-turning duties to the next captain. A significant risk indeed.

Stats Matter

Statistics matter – both when a team is going into the NCAA Tournament and when a pope is going into his legacy-defining final years. For me, the most compelling numbers are zero, which is the number of Church teachings Francis has altered, and three, which is the number of synods he’s convened.

But numbers alone can’t tell the story. The synod on synodality has a different tenor than many before it. Michael Sean Winter’s headline of an opinion piece for National Catholic Reporter may say it best: “The most defining characteristic of Francis’ papacy is synodality.”

I’m troubled by the “zero” stat regarding changes in the Church, but I’m encouraged by the “three” stat and its implications regarding synods convened. Of course, only time will tell.




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