New Year brings fresh challenges for Pope Francis

Vatican City (AFP) –


Pope Francis faces a tough 2016, Vatican insiders say, with no let-up in his physically demanding schedule or the political battles over his efforts to modernise the Church.

The 79-year-old pontiff, who eschews holidays and has appeared worn out at times during the last year, has already scheduled major trips to Mexico (February) and Poland (July).

Visits to Kosovo and Armenia (to mark the 100th anniversary of the World War I genocide there) are expected to be added to his diary while France and his native Argentina are also seen as possible destinations in the next 12 months.

Laid low by the flu over Christmas, Francis nevertheless had the energy to insist that his wave-making shake-up of Vatican governance would be pursued in the New Year.

"The reform of the Curia (the Vatican bureacracy) will progress with determination, clarity and resolve," he said in his end-of-year message to the faithful.

Top of the agenda for 2016 is the creation of two new ministries within the Vatican, one responsible for Laity, Family and Life, the other for Justice, Peace and Migration.

The Vatican's media operations are also earmarked for reform alongside a continuing clean-up of the Holy See's finances.

The reform process has encountered resistance amongst sections of the cossetted Vatican hierarchy.

Although there have been no redundancies, many clerics have been sent back to their dioceses and the wings of those who have stayed in Rome have been clipped by spending cutbacks.

- Tricky trial and Saint Theresa -

Francis's regular public attacks on extravagance and greed in the upper echelons of the Church, his gift for cutting soundbites and his quick-to-anger temperament have not endeared him to many within the Vatican machine.

This has helped to create a paradoxical situation where Francis's popularity with both believers and non-believers around the world is mirrored by an unusually high level of grumbling about him within the Vatican.

The scale of the internal opposition was underlined in October when an apparently erroneous Italian media report that the pontiff had been treated for a benign brain tumour was immediately attributed to hostile elements seeking to undermine the Argentinian pope.

The work still to be done on the Vatican's murky finances was underlined on December 15 when a Council of Europe body that combats money laundering and terror financing urged the Holy See authorities to accelerate indictments and prosecutions of officials involved in large-scale irregularities in the Church's scandal-hit bank and asset management body.

The report from the Moneyval body was embarrassing as it came as the Vatican faces criticism for pursuing the prosecution of three former officials and two journalists over the leaking of classified documents which detail irregularities, extravagance and mismanagement in Church spending.

That trial is due to resume early in the New Year and handling its eventual outcome will be one of the many tricky tasks Francis will have to deal with during a Jubilee Year dedicated to the theme of mercy.

The pope also faces a delicate balancing act in relation to Church teaching on issues related to the family, including the vexed subjects of homosexuality and divorce.

Deep divisions over these questions were exposed at a meeting of senior clerics in October with conservatives rallying strongly to make it clear they oppose any moves to make the Church more welcoming to gay believers or to allow the divorced to remarry and still take communion.

Francis now has to decide if he takes such views on board when he outlines his own thinking in a keenly awaited letter, or 'Apostolic Exhortation', to the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.

The Jubilee year will add to Francis's workload, notably with the scheduling of an extra weekly audience on Saturdays, in addition to his existing Wednesday and Sunday appearances before the public. One of the highlights of the Jubilee year is expected to come in early September with the expected canonisation of Mother Theresa, the late nun celebrated for her work with the poor in Kolkata.