Francis wants bishops who are pastors first – Brendan Hoban’s weekly Western People column    

Francis wants bishops who are pastors first                      

Western People, Sept 8th 2020

Maureen Kelly, a native of Ballycastle, is a Mercy Sister, in Lima, Peru. She spent most of her early life teaching maths and science in Our Lady’s Secondary School, Belmullet and for the last twenty years she has worked as a missionary in Peru.

The last time she was home I bumped into her on the train to Dublin and we had a great chat about Peru, the changes that had taken place in Ireland in recent years and what the future might hold for the Catholic Church in Ireland and in the world. She was particularly excited about the difference Pope Francis was making, in particular the impact of some of his appointments as bishop not least that of archbishop of Lima, with which she was familiar.

She described the transition in Lima when a new archbishop was appointed. The retiring archbishop, Cardinal Juan Luis Capriani, an aristocrat, was a very conservative and reactionary churchman. He was very ill at ease with the shift (for example) in the Latin American Church in 2007 when a general conference (in Aparecida) marked a significant step away from a clerical, introspective church to a church of the people where decisions (rather than being handed down) were arrived at through a process of mutual listening, consultation and discernment – very much as envisaged in the Second Vatican Council. Of the 133 delegates at Aparecida, Capriani was one of only two said to have voted against the concluding document and, apparently, he left the conference in a huff.

Present at the conference in 2007, and one of the main supporters of the Vatican Two concept of ‘the Church as the People of God’, was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. So when Capriani reached his 75th birthday and retirement loomed, the people of Lima held a collective breath to see if Francis’s appointment of a successor to Capriani would reflect a move from a clericalist to a people’s church.

Just twenty-five days after Cipriani’s 75th birthday, and true to his vision of the future of our Church, Francis appointed as the new archbishop Carlos Castillo Mattasoglio, a parish priest from one of Lima’s shanty-towns. It was a clear signal from Francis that the church in Peru was moving towards the option for the poor at the heart of the Aparecida declaration – a move opposed by Capriani and supported by Castillo.

Austen Ivereigh, in his recent book, Wounded Shepherd, Pope Francis and his Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church, described the appointment as ‘the ecclesiastical equivalent of a hand-brake turn’. Francis had pointed the Peruvian church in a very different direction by appointing Castillo, the mirror opposite of Cipriani.

Sr Maureen gave me a graphic account of the extraordinary day of Castillo’s ordination as archbishop. The people of his parish gathered at their church of San Lorenzo in the shanty-town on the bank of the Rimac river and, together with Castillo, walked across the bridge to the other bank to Lima’s Cathedral, symbolically connecting the centre of the diocese with the shanty-towns on the opposite bank. It was an emotionally-charged occasion, a dispossessed people claiming their birthright as baptised Catholics, a proclamation of their desire to have their voices heard at the centre of their church and their celebration of a new archbishop who would represent their concerns and facilitate their participation in their church.

Castillo told the people that he wanted to create a church that was close to the people struggling in their flimsy houses and sleeping on cardboard – ‘the suffering Christs’ who were calling them to be what Francis called ‘a field hospital Church’. In his homily Castillo asked Catholics to consider three questions: What did they want the Church in Lima to improve on? What were ‘the main peripheries’ the clergy needed to attend to? And what should Lima’s missionary Church do in order to be a sign of hope?

Francis’ choice of Castillo represents an obvious and significant change of policy in appointing bishops. Austen Ivereigh explains it like this. Under Pope John Paul, bishops were expected to be managers, strong on discipline and the law of the Church, ‘culture warriors’ who were loyal and obedient to Rome and who would clearly and fearlessly articulate church teaching. In other words, like the Polish pope himself. Benedict, himself a theologian, preferred to focus on church teaching and his appointments led to a disproportionate number of theologians. It might be said of John Paul’s and Benedict’s perspective on appointing bishops that if all you have is a hammer, all you see is a nail.

Francis takes a different approach. What he wanted were bishops who would be close to the people. Yes, the Church needed canon lawyers and theologians – and, he suggested, they could teach in a seminary or work in a diocesan office – but what Francis is saying is that unless they were ‘pastors’ (that is, close to the people), they shouldn’t be bishops.

There are over 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world and every year Pope Francis appoints hundreds of new bishops, most recently Father Paul Dempsey, formerly PP, of Newbridge in Kildare, who was ordained bishop of Achonry a week or so ago.

I’ve never met him but the word among the clergy is that ‘Achonry has done well’ and that he has ‘the mark of Francis on him’ – that he’s the kind of personable, informal bishop who will be close to the people and lead them (as Archbishop Castillo in Lima is leading his flock) through a process of mutual listening, consultation and discernment, that Francis believes is the way of being church in the future.

May God grant Bishop Paul strength of mind and body to face that difficult challenge in these strange times.


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  1. Maureen Kelly says:

    Thank you, Brendan, for highlighting South America. I wish to add that Cardinal Cipriani has since apologized to Pope Francis for leaving before the closure of the conference in Aparecida.

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Brendan, speaking of bishops as pastors, I thought I should share this link below which should cheer us all up –or maybe not.

    But, you know, if we can’t see the funny side of this kind of stuff, we could all easily end up seriously depressed and morose.

    And, I don’t suppose this will help stimulate a conversation on the whole business of infallibility. If I remember correctly, only Joe and myself have ever dared to mention the word on this site.

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