The early days of the pontificate of Pope Francis I have been heady ones, to say the least. The new pope has impressed the world—not just the Catholic world—with his humility, his love of simplicity, and his natural warmth. If the promising seed of the first few months bears fruit in the months and years to come, and if Francis remains in good health, we can look forward to a pastoral papacy the likes of which we have not seen since the all-too-brief reign of John XXIII (1958-1963).
It was John XXIII, considered to be a transition pope and dismissed by many among the curial elite as a peasant, who surprised the world and dismayed the Roman curia when he announced the calling of the Second Vatican Council. The theme that John envisioned for the council was aggiornamento, an opening up of the Church to the modern world, an updating not only of liturgical practices but of attitudes, to modern life, to other Christian churches and other religions, to the Catholic laity.
For the past thirty-five years, the papacy and its bureaucracy, the Roman curia, have been the Catholic Church although such a state of affairs has constituted a betrayal of the spirit, if not the law, of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Swiss theologian Hans Küng articulates the nature of this betrayal as reflected in the papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005):
“Instead of the words of the conciliar program there are again the slogans of a magisterium which once more is conservative and authoritarian. Instead of the aggiornamento in the spirit of the gospel there is now again the traditional ‘Catholic teaching’ (rigorous moral encyclicals, the traditionalist world catechism). Instead of the collegiality of the pope with the bishops there is again a tighter Roman centralism which in the nomination of bishops and appointments to the theological chairs sets itself above the interests of the local churches.
“…the Roman legalism, clericalism, and triumphalism, which was [sic] so vigorously criticized by the bishops at the council – cosmetically rejuvenated and in modern dress – has come back with a vengeance. This became evident above all in the new Canon Law promulgated in 1983, which contrary to the intentions of the council, sets no limit to the exercise of power by pope, curia, and nuncios. Indeed it diminishes the status of the ecumenical councils, assigns the conferences of bishops only advisory tasks, continues to keep the laity totally dependent on the hierarchy, and thoroughly neglects the church’s ecumenical dimension.”
Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI (2005-2013), was for virtually all of John Paul II’s pontificate the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, essentially the enforcer of his boss’s restorationist policies. The restoration continued under Benedict’s pontificate.
From his very first appearance on the loggia of St. Peter’s less than an hour after his election, it has been apparent that Francis has a different agenda from that of his two predecessors. In the first six moths of his pontificate he has, through his words and actions, set about to dismantle the wall of orthodoxy, constructed over three decades, between the church and its members, to throw open the doors of the church to all who seek to enter and to be embraced. Francis has made it clear that the hierarchical, authoritarian Church of the past thirty-five years will be replaced under his pontificate with a pastoral church.
In a stunning interview given to the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Catolica and published in Jesuit media throughout the world, Francis stated, “I see clearly…that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
Progressive Catholics, many of them disaffected by the doctrinal rigidity – often carried to painfully ludicrous extremes – of the previous two Holy Fathers, are pleased and encouraged by Francis’s de-emphasizing of the hot-button moral issues which seemed to obsess John Paul II and Benedict.
From the La Civiltà Catolica interview: “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules…. We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things and I have been reprimanded for that. But when we speak of these issues, we have to talk about them in a context…. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and its flock of more than one billion faithful. As such, he is powerfully influential man, both within the church and outside of it. But the Chinese have a saying, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away,” which might have some relevance to the current pontificate. Francis has told his nuncios, the papal representatives in countries throughout the world, that he wants candidates for new bishops to be “pastors who are close to their people, fathers and brothers, who are meek, patient and merciful.” He does not want bishops with the “mindset of a prince.”
This is a good beginning and we can only hope that Francis will live long enough or remain pope long enough to replace a majority of the princes appointed by his predecessors with “pastors.” It is going to take time – and indeed some degree of struggle – for the humility, the open-mindedness, and the love and respect for the people of God to reach the level of the diocese, of the parish.
“The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor… The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they also must be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”
I cannot help but think that Francis is sending a message directly to the faithful (i.e., bypassing the hierarchy) that says, “You are the church. I am setting the example, showing you the way, but you must change this church. You must insist to your priests and your bishops on the kind of church you want.”
I hope they are listening.
“Visita Papa Brasil” 2013 by Semilla Luz. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
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