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Pope Francis Celebrates His Birthday With Migrants And Refugees

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Despite having lost part of his lung as a young man, the pope has largely been fit as a fiddle during a pandemic marked by an illness that preys on the respiratory system and on the elderly. The Energizer pontiff turned 85 on Friday and spent the day doing what he does often and with passion–celebrating refugees. He brought seventeen back to Rome with him from his recent Cyprus visit where they were languishing in limbo. The grateful group who hailed from as far away as Africa and Asia presented him with a painting of an Afghan refugee setting out to sea in search of kinder shores as a birthday present.

While his gait has been labored, some would say the Pope has hit his stride, politically and pastorally in his 85th year. Some years ago he said age is not only gauged by time on this planet, but by how you live your life.


“There is only one thing that really makes us age, grow old inside: not age, but sin,” Pope Francis said in 2017, during a speech about the Virgin Mary.

The pope was keen to hit the road as soon as lockdown restrictions allowed, making a historic trip to Iraq, visiting the most shattered parts of the country, and imparting a strong message of conciliation. The Cyprus and Greece trip was the most recent, where an elderly priest in Athens yelled at him, “Pope, you are a heretic!”

Pope Francis meets U.S. President Joe Biden at the Apostolic Palace on October 29, 2021 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo by Vatican Media via Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Still, at the end of that trip Francis expressed a willingness to travel to Moscow to meet the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. No pope has been to Moscow, and it could mean the end of a painful 1000-year rift between churches…or at least could signal the beginning of the end.

“I see a lot of energy,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, one of Francis’ trusted Jesuit communications gurus said about the octogenarian pontiff. “What we’re seeing is the natural expression, the fruit of the seeds that he has sown.”

Pope Francis met former Pope Benedict XVI to exchange Christmas greetings in Vatican City. ((Photo by Maurix/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images))

The pope has tried to clean up Vatican finances which has involved cracking the whip on many fronts, instituting a ten percent pay cut for cardinals, and passing a law legalizing criminal prosecutions of church hierarchy by Vatican tribunal. His one-time close advisor Cardinal Angelo Becciu is in the dock now for financial improprieties having to do with a mega property deal in London that went wrong along with a slew of other alleged abuses of power which became fodder for the tabloid press.

“In the past year, Pope Francis has accelerated his efforts at reform by putting real teeth into the church’s canon law regarding finances,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, director of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross’s Program of Church Management.

These efforts don’t come a minute too soon as the Vatican has a fifty-seven million dollar deficit.


The pope has also recently laid out the ways priests and others could be tried for cover-ups of abuse in the church as the scandals from dioceses around the world continue to come to light, exposing systematic mistreatment of the most vulnerable of the flock in too many cases. In response to a landmark report in France that laid out tens of thousands of cases of child abuse by clergy as well as lay members of the church, Francis said,” It is also my shame, our shame for the incapacity of the church for too long to put them (victims) at the center or our concerns.”

Franca Giansoldati, Vatican correspondent for Il Messaggero newspaper said Francis’ work has been widely appreciated.

“We can say that the end of these first eight years of pontificate marks a great result in terms of popularity. Families consider him as a grandfather, a father, a close and loved person. But on the other hand inside the church, in the Catholic archipelagos with its complete nuances, there are real problems and most of them exploded this year.”

Pope Francis celebrates Holy Mass during his visit at the Catholic University Of The Sacred Heart on November 05, 2021 in Rome, Italy. ( Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

The Vatican is famous for intrigue. Francis’ crusade to curtail some people’s power while being more inclusive of groups formerly marginalized by the church like gays have caused blowback from conservatives. Rumors of ill health (he did undergo major intestinal surgery this year from which he quickly bounced back) and resignation plans have sprung up in the course of this year prompting the pope to say, “some wanted me dead.”

His support of–or at least unwillingness to criticize–pro-choice politicians like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has brought further criticism from conservatives who consider the pope’s silence on what they see as a critical divergence scandalous.

The grandson of Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina during the depression, Francis had a varied life before setting on his path to the top church job. He studied chemistry and apparently at one time worked as a bouncer in a club to collect the money needed to study at seminary. When he was elected in 2013 to succeed Benedict XVI who made huge waves by retiring, he was the first non-European pope in 1300 years and the first in six hundred years to have to step in for a pope emeritus.

Francis’ fans hope he won’t choose the path of Benedict. Perhaps they reflect on another of the pontiff’s musings on age as an indication that he will stay the course.


“You are experiencing a season, old age, which is not a disease but a privilege,” Pope Francis once said. “And even those of you who are sick live, we can say, a privilege: that of resembling Jesus who suffers, carrying the cross just like Him.”