Pope (now Saint) John XXIII was once asked how many people worked in the Vatican. He smiled his usual smile before replying, ‘I’d say, about half of them’.
The response was explained partly by his self-deprecating approach to the Vatican, and all things Roman; but partly too because, cute man that he was, he probably didn’t want to answer the question directly.
In fact, there are at present over 3,000 people working in the Vatican. What, I sometimes wonder, are they all doing? Despite the number of congregations, commissions, departments and bureaucrats, letters to Rome seem to fall into some great cavernous black hole and, it often seems, that only years later a response eventually emerges.
The Catholic Church is arguably the world’s most hierarchical organization and the impression is sometimes given that it’s a monumental, hyper-organised, well-oiled machine in total control of a global agenda; and that it keeps a sharp focus on tightly-monitored over-sight and stringent management with its finger on the relevant pulse in the dioceses that make up the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world.
The reality is very different. Despite the facade and the carefully choreographed public profile the business of managing the universal Church is a mish-mash of disorganisation and dysfunction, where cardinals and department heads behave like feudal lords. The Vatican is more a medieval village than corporate headquarters. In fact there’s a chronic disconnect between what happens in Vatican City and the Catholics of the world.
I’ve been reading a book by John Thavis, The Vatican Diaries (Penguin, 2013) which is a behind-the-scenes look at the power, personalities and politics at the heart of the Catholic Church. It’s an instructive read, opening a window not on a super-organised institution but a haphazard collection of what Thavis calls ‘a culture of miscommunication and miscues, of good intentions and flawed executions, of conflicting agendas and shifting alliances’.
It begs the obvious questions: How can so many officials, apparently beavering away in so many offices, produce so little of value for the Catholics of the world and get so much so wrong?
Pope Francis seems to have the answer. He’s forever complaining about the personal ambition, clerical careerism and the culture of gossip and innuendo that seems to prevail in the Vatican. And the word is that he’s anxious to repatriate to their home Churches hundreds if not thousands of cassocked clergy, swanning around the Vatican, impeccably dressed but surplus to requirements. The Vatican isn’t, in modern jargon, fit-for purpose and Francis and his group of eight trusted cardinal-advisors are trying to sort it out. Downsizing will be part of the answer.
They will have their work cut out for them. While reforms will be introduced, it will take a long time to turn the Vatican machine into an instrument at the service of the Church rather than a Church at the service of the Vatican. The difficult truth is that, while technically Pope Francis is all-powerful and can introduce any changes he wants the reality is, change will be blocked, is being blocked by those who see their power and influence placed at risk
Change can be blocked too by simply ignoring what’s happening. Pope John XXIII, at 77, was regarded as a temporary, stopgap Pope, whose daft ideas about reforming the Church would be scuppered on the icebergs of tradition and custom, as bishops like Archbishop John Charles McQuaid clearly believed.
Likewise, Pope Francis, at 77. While no cardinal or bishop would be so disloyal as to object publicly to the present reforms, the lack of engagement with or support for what Francis is attempting to do is palpable.
Is there any silence like the silence of the Irish bishops in response to Francis’ reforming agenda? Yes, of course, there are the usual formulaic expressions of generalized support – like football clubs expressing their support for a hapless manager about to be sacked – but no sympathy with or excitement about what could be a new dawn of hope for the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, USA, recently commented on how some American bishops were very discouraged by Pope Francis because he was ‘challenging’ them to be different. Translate that and what you get is that some (many?) American bishops are uncomfortable with and don’t want to respond to the reforming agenda of Pope Francis. And the same is true of bishops elsewhere, including Ireland.
When Francis decided to ask Catholics in parishes (in a worldwide survey) for their opinion about family issues, the reluctance of bishops, including Irish bishops, was obvious. While they went through the motions (what else could they do) they even found it difficult to tell the people who were surveyed what the outcome was!
The unease of bishops with Francis actually consulting people, actually asking people for their opinions (as distinct from the periodic mock consultations that take place to tick off another box on the ‘pretend agenda’) indicates their inability to trust their people. They would much prefer, thank you very much, to keep looking into their own hearts and deciding what’s best for the people; like the New Missal; or the way bishops are appointed.
The last thing bishops caught in the pre-Francis Church want is to ask the people for their opinions because they don’t want to hear what they know the people would tell them. Is it any wonder that so many priests and people are fed up with being disrespected and patronised by being asked for their opinions when they know that their opinions will be disregarded anyway?
Can you think of even one Irish bishop who seems even mildly excited by the Francis tide? Is there even one Joseph Tobin among the Irish bishops who can articulate their obvious discomfort with the challenges Francis is placing before them?
In a masterful understatement, Tobin said, ‘I think there is some resistance (among American bishops) to a different way of doing the Gospel Mission of the Church’. Then he paused and smiled and said. ‘So, pray for Francis’ health’.