On December 17, 2016, Pope Francis turned eighty. Despite the weight of his responsibility, he continues to show boundless energy as he carries out the Petrine ministry he was called to exercise three and a half years ago. This milestone in his life offers us a fitting occasion to reflect on his moral authority as Supreme Pontiff.
The fact is that in today’s world there are many – not only Catholics, Christians, and believers, but also many non-believers beyond the confines of religion – who consider Pope Francis a world leader; a man of such moral authority and trustworthiness that he attracts people from every continent and offers responses to questions and uncertainties all over the globe, both about today’s realities and particularly about our common future. Thus he is a man worthy of trust and listened to with attentiveness and hope – we should emphasize the word “hope” – so that we might feel helped to see (or at least to catch a glimpse of) the direction we should follow and undertake the journey.
Pope Francis’ leadership qualities are all the more evident when we take a broad look at today’s world. It is true that the era in which we are currently living, both in many individual nations and on an international level, can be largely characterized by uncertainty and confusion. We only have to think about the ongoing economic crisis, long-standing and seemingly never-ending armed conflicts, the spread of radicalism and terrorism, the persistence of grave forms of injustice and economic and social inequality, an increase in the complexity and difficulty of governance putting national political institutions and international organizations to the test, widespread corruption undermining our trust in political authorities and democracy itself, and perhaps more significantly, the rapid cultural and anthropological changes that come with globalization and new forms of communication that seem to weaken traditional forms.
There are not many – if any – world leaders who stand out against this background with authority, revealing a face and a voice capable of creating consensus and shared initiatives for action and commitment. And yet there is a great need for these, especially at historic moments presenting exceptional challenges and opportunities. We Europeans, after seventy years, still consider ourselves fortunate to have had great leaders to guide the moral, political, and economic reconstruction of Europe after the disaster of World War II. Today we struggle to identify figures of such caliber around us and we cannot help but be concerned when we have to participate in electoral campaigns characterized by such disappointing values, even in countries with an august democratic tradition.
In such a globalized and fragmented world and at this historic moment just at the beginning of the third millennium, why does the figure of Pope Francis raise such high expectations?