A new structure and dynamic is unfolding in the Church

Pope Francis begins his interview with America with a reference to Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew,” an image that unlocks that which is at the heart of his life and mission. Jesus looks at Matthew, bent over his money. Francis identifies with the man: “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” But he also sees the Christian mission as offering that healing gaze to others. He is touched by seeing how individuals live. When he addresses the question of welcoming gay people in the church, he says, “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?” If we dare to really see people, in their dignity and humanity, then we shall discover the right words to say. Who knows where this will take us?

The interview focuses on Francis’ identity as the first Jesuit Pope. As a Dominican, I am delighted that at last the Society has one; we Dominicans have had four and since the time of Pope St. Pius V in the 16th century, the pope has even worn a form of Dominican habit! However, Pope Francis is influenced profoundly by the founders of two religious orders, Francis and Ignatius. It would have been interesting to explore the interplay of both traditions. If we are to escape narrowness, we always need several perspectives to edge us forward.

As a Jesuit, the pope gives a central place to discernment. This implies patience, taking the time to think, pray and consult. This is vital for understanding what is happening in these early days of his pontificate. People are impatient to see what he will do, but, he says, “I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change…. I am always wary of decisions made hastily.” This contradicts the pressure of the media to wrap people up in simple categories. Uncertainty is unbearable. We have to feel our way forward: “The Jesuit always thinks, again and again, looking toward the horizon towards which he must go, with Christ at the centre.”

Pope Francis says that “the structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterwards. The first reform must be the attitude.” Structural change to the government of the church is vital, but it must follow from a new way of being church, in which we get out of the sacristy, engage with people, know their suffering and their puzzlement from within. At this stage, the pope is showing the way forward by what he does. He has a capacity to make expansive gestures that open up new perspectives. His first trip outside Rome was a visit to Lampedusa, where so many immigrants have died trying to enter Europe; or think of his visit to the favella in Rio de Janeiro. Christianity is a religion of sacramental gestures, the pouring of water and the breaking of bread, and his gestures are powerful in opening up the future.

This new way of being church will eventually have to find structural form. Pope Francis says: “The dicasteries of the Roman Curia are at the service of the pope and the bishops.” It has not always felt this way! Cardinal Hume said that the bishops must cease to be at the service of the pope and the Roman Curia, but rather the Curia serve the government of the pope and the bishops. This implies that the pope ceases to be a monarch, presiding over the church from a remote height, and becomes again the bishop of Rome, embedded in the college of bishops. From the moment that he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, Francis has shown that this is his intention. So this papacy could mark the most fundamental change in the governance of the church in centuries, from monarchy to collegiality. Much of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s theology of the church implied shift. Francis wishes to do it. He insists on the return to models of synodal government and on real consultation. Lay people will have a voice, as they often did in the early church. We must have patience as the form of this new structure and dynamic unfolds.

I would conclude with two profound hopes. That a way will be found to welcome divorced and remarried people back to communion. And, most important, that women will be given real authority and voice in the church. The pope expresses his desire that this may happen, but what concrete form can it take? He believes that the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood is not possible, but decision-making in the church has become ever more closely linked to ordination in recent years. Can that bond be loosened? Let us hope that women may be ordained to the diaconate and so have a place in preaching at the Eucharist. What other ways can authority be shared?

Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., is the former master of the Dominican Order and the author of What is the Point of Being a Christian?



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  1. I hope Pope Francis is not like one of those birthday candles that shoots fire, stars, and hisses and then fizzles out…

  2. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Clearly, when he and his C8 team get around to the great dicastery shake-out, Francis will have to transform the Pontifical Council of the Laity into a Congregation, (with equal status to the CDF and those for Bishops,Clergy and Consecrated Life), led by a Cardinal Prefect. My current dream ticket for Prefect and Secretary: Maria Cardinal McAleese & Miasignora CrisTina Beattie. The positions are, of course, still open. All else being equal, I’m told, Francis & C8 will have a preference for an all female team. The rumour in Rome that Signatura Prefect, the fragrantly floral Raymond Leo Burke, has changed his name to Rosamunda Luisa may be just that – a rumour. Cardinal BernÁrd Law, however, is consulting his Canon Law.

  3. Peter McCann says:

    You know, I really hate this phrase:

    ”a new way of being church”

    Being Church… oookay….

  4. Eddie Finnegan always manages a 70 degree off centre view of life which is to be welcomed. Good man, keep them coming!

  5. Jesus gave us a way for remarried people to receive communion. He came for ALL, not many as we have had that term shoved down our throats. In coming for ALL, Jesus at the last supper gave communion to Judas who was in the state of sin. Jesus came for sinners. Who are we to judge? Who are we to put restrictions on whom Jesus can come to? The way is clear for remarrieds and all people to receive. Just present yourselves and Jesus will take over. Hopefully the clerics will not come between Jesus and the People of God.

  6. Mary O Vallely says:

    “Can that bond be loosened?” Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. asks. Well, of course, any bond can be loosened if there is a will and a desire to loosen it. Check out Martin Murray’s excellent report on the ACI website

    “Also evident was the relaxed bond between everyone involved in delivering the day. Each person had a job to do and no one was exalted. The bishop and his two auxiliaries were in there with
    everyone else, taking their turn in doing what they had to do.”

    There is plenty of food here for discussion and debate around PPC tables throughout the country. We start by loosening the bonds that have held us tongue tied for years in our own parishes and we discuss honestly and openly all those injustices and obstacles that hold us back from being better followers of Christ.
    Mary V

  7. John @5 is quite right. Judas’s contribution is usually underrated.
    Just as an aside, I always felt that a literal reconstruction of the last supper (the mass) would require a quorum of 12 excluding the celebrant and including at least one in the state of mortal sin. And I haven’t heard the literalists go quite that far yet.

  8. Pol, your blog is a work of art…Oh, it’s all just too crazy…
    And to think, that Pope Francis has the skill, the finesse, the knowledge, the love, the wisdom, and the power to make a lot that is “crooked” become “straight” and I am not finished…”level the mountains and fill in the valleys”…my bible quotes again! A leadership of Pope Francis that truly overhauls the Church (his words) would do so much, I would hope…to end the chaos and move the Church forward with Christ…a forward…that does see…not only change…but the full realization of the vision of Vatican II.

  9. Con Devree says:

    I think it is necessary to read all, that is all, of what Pope Francis has said, which goes way beyond “expressive gestures.” Many commentators seem to divide his pronouncemens into three categories:
    1. those that they welcome
    2. statements of his they believe are temporary
    3. statements they ignore

    Father Radcliffe adopts this approaach with the usual lack of rationale for it.

  10. Judas had yet to betray the Lord at the Last Supper. Jesus still loved him, still hoped for him.
    Maria Cardinal McAleese ! Would she give up her plus pension which she enjoys courtesy of the struggling Irish citizenry ! Wonder why she does not think of doing so now and setting an example for the rest of the gravy trainers !

  11. Eddie Finnegan says:

    “Maria Cardinal McAleese ! Would she give up her plus pension which she enjoys courtesy of the struggling Irish citizenry !”
    Well, Pew View@10, I’m sure Her Eminence will be ready to declare her debt to “the struggling Irish citizenry”, and even to er ‘park’ her pension for the 7-year period of her cardinalacy (sec Novum Codicem IC, 2014) – once she has been assured that their Eminences Angelo Sodano and Stanislaw Dziwisz have revealed and reverted all revenue streams that flowed through or to them from the late Marcial Maciel. We can also be sure that Cardinal Maria’s wardrobe will place less strain on Peter’s Pence or the Pontifical Societies than does the more opulent sartorial splendour of His Eminence Raymond L Burke.
    Maria will be only one of the 60 female cardinals representing 50% of the disciples on whom the Holy Spirit descended. [Like the late Fr Gobbi, Pew View, I make it up as I go along. It works!]

  12. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Pardon me, my people. After offering my gobbets of wisdom here for the past three years, I too am falling into the besetting sin I’ve condemned in others. I am becoming both self-referential and self-reverential. While I’m happy to see that Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Co-ordinator of Pope Francis’s C8, has continued to follow me, I’d have thought that even a Tegucigalpan would have the courtesy to acknowledge my Input @2 and 11 above. While in Dallas last week he was busy insisting that Laity and Clergy are all one, earlier in Spain he was quoting me almost verbatim: “A Congregation for the Laity? There’s one for bishops, one for priests, and another for Religious – yet there isn’t one for those who are most numerous!”
    So when Oscar calls me to Rome and Tegucigalpa for consultations next week, remember you read it here first.

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