Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves as he leaves at the end of the weekly general audience on March 8, 2023 at St. Peter's square in The Vatican. Image Credit: AFP

Vaticn City: Pope Francis marks 10 years as head of the Catholic Church on Monday, hugely popular but facing internal dissent after a decade of reform, even if he has left basic doctrine intact.

When he appeared at the balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in his plain white papal robes, the newly elected Jorge Bergoglio immediately presented an image of a different kind of papacy.

The smiling, outspoken Jesuit was in sharp contrast to his reserved, intellectual predecessor Benedict XVI, who shocked the world by becoming the first pope since the Middle Ages to resign.

And Francis had a plan - to reform the governance of the Church plagued by inertia, clean up its murky finances and turn its focus outwards.

The pope has engaged the Church on issues that are at the heart of Western democracies, such as the environment, education, law.

- Roberto Regoli, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University

While he has not deviated from some staunch Catholic beliefs - he has called abortion murder and homosexuality a sin - he has shown a more compassionate and less dogmatic approach, including condemning the persecution of gay people.

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"No more demonisation of homosexuality, debates on extramarital relations or the contraceptive pill... all that has been taken off the table," noted Italian Vaticanist Marco Politi.

Instead, the 86-year-old pontiff - who is seemingly never happier than when among his flock - has emphasised social justice, inter-religious dialogue, the environment and the rights of refugees.

"The pope has engaged the Church on issues that are at the heart of Western democracies, such as the environment, education, law," added Roberto Regoli, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Pope Francis
In this file photo taken on March 19, 2013 Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the papamobile during his inauguration mass at St Peter's square on March 19, 2013 at the Vatican. Image Credit: AFP

Huge crowds

In the face of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church worldwide, the pope's reforms have included new obligations to report clerical child abuse and its cover-up.

On the international stage, he has sought to forge alliances around the world, most notably between the Vatican and China, Muslim countries and the Russian Orthodox Church.

However, ties with the latter have been strained by the war in Ukraine, while little has come out of Francis' offers to broker peace between Kyiv and Moscow.

Despite his advancing age and health problems - he was hospitalised in 2021 for colon surgery, and now uses a wheelchair due to knee trouble - Francis continues to travel widely.

Huge crowds greeted him on a visit earlier this year to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a testament to his ongoing popularity.

Catholics around the world will also remember his guidance during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly when he stood alone during a storm in St Peter's Square in March 2020, urging believers to ease their fears through faith.

Pope Francis
In this file photo taken on March 31, 2013 Pope Francis celebrates the Easter mass at the Vatican. Image Credit: AFP

Power struggles

In Rome, Francis' humble style - he chose a sober apartment over the gold of the apostolic palace and has invited the homeless and ex-prisoners to his table - signalled a shift in attitude from the start.

But some criticise Francis' penchant for doing things his own way, in throwing off the trappings and traditions of the papal office and adopting a very personal governance of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics, seeing it as going too far.

"Francis demonstrates an authoritarianism that the Curia hasn't seen for a long time. Inevitably, this can be irritating," a senior diplomat stationed in Rome told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Now more than ever, the first Latin American pope faces strong opposition from the conservative wing of the Catholic Church.

Some of it was stirred up by the deaths of two of the conservatives' leading figures - Benedict, on December 31, and Australian Cardinal George Pell, in January.

Francis has said he would follow Benedict in stepping down if his health made him unable to do his job, but also says resigning should not be the norm, and was not on his agenda.

But preparations for a conclave, at which a successor would be chosen, "have already started - and not manoeuvres on names, but on the ideological platform of the future pope", Politi told AFP.

On that too, however, Francis is leaving his mark, having so far appointed 65 per cent of the cardinals who will one day elect his successor.

Pope Francis
In this file photo taken on December 01, 2017 Pope Francis takes a ride in a rickshaw during the second day of his visit to Bangladesh, in Dhaka. Image Credit: AFP
Key dates in Pope Francis' 10-year pontificate
- March 13, 2013: Jorge Mario Bergoglio is elected 266th pope, succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down. He chooses the name Francis in reference to Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor.

- July 8, 2013: Francis chooses the Italian island of Lampedusa, a major gateway to Europe for migrants, for his first voyage as pope where he castigates the "globalisation of indifference." Three years later in 2016, Francis will bring back 12 families from a migrant camp in Lesbos, Greece.

- July 11, 2013: Launches a reform of the Vatican's penal code to fight sexual abuse against minors and corruption within the Church.

- July 29, 2013: Francis signals a more tolerant church when he says on a flight back from Brazil that "if someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?"

- December 22, 2014: To an audience of stunned cardinals, he delivers a speech listing the "15 diseases" plaguing the Roman Curia, the Church's central government.

- June 18, 2015: Francis publishes his second encyclical, "Laudato Si'" dedicated to environmentalism. The letter urges action against climate change.

- February 12, 2016: An historic meeting with the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, comes nearly 1,000 years after the schism between the Eastern Church and Rome.

- April 11, 2018: Francis acknowledges "grave errors" in his handling of child sexual abuse cases in Chile and asks for forgiveness.

- September 22, 2018: Francis announces the first-ever agreement between China and the Holy See over bishop appointments.

- February 4, 2019: In Abu Dhabi, he signs an historic document on human brotherhood with Sunni Islam's highest authority, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.

- February 16, 2019: Francis defrocks former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom the Vatican found guilty of sexual abuse against minors and adults.

- February 21-24, 2019: Francis convenes a Vatican summit on sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

- February 12, 2020: He dismisses a proposal for married men as priests and women deacons in the Amazon, where clergy are scarce, disappointing progressives.

- March 27, 2020: In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Francis delivers an "Urbi et Orbi" address alone in a deserted St Peter's Square.

- September 24, 2020: Francis accepts the resignation of powerful Italian cardinal Angelo Becciu, accused of embezzlement linked to an opaque Vatican property deal in 2013 resulting in millions of euros in losses.

- October 4, 2020: The pope publishes his third encyclical, "Fratelli tutti", on fraternity and social friendship that is particularly critical of "neoliberal dogma".

- October 21, 2020: In a documentary, Francis says he is in favour of same-sex civil unions.

- March 6, 2021: During the first ever papal visit to Iraq, Francis meets the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

- July 4, 2021: Francis undergoes successful colon surgery and leaves the hospital after 10 days.

- July 16, 2021: He publishes an apostolic letter that limits the use of the celebration of mass in Latin, provoking the anger of conservative Catholics.

- February 25, 2022: Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Francis pays an unusual visit to the Russian embassy to the Holy See to express his concern over the war to the ambassador.

- June 5, 2022: Francis' new Apostolic Constitution comes into force, which completes the reorganisation of the Curia and the decentralisation of the Church.

- July 24, 2022: He arrives in Canada to personally apologise to Indigenous survivors of abuse at schools run by the Church from the late 1800s to the 1990s.

- January 5, 2023: Francis presides over the funeral of Benedict XVI in St Peter's Square.