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Hang onto your hats for 2014: it may be a bumpy ride

Pope Francis: Man of the Year, 2014?
In the slipstream between the old year and the new, Pope Francis was
designated the Time magazine Man of the Year. For some, the ultimate
accolade. For all, a breath-taking example of the way one individual can
single-handed change perceptions, even of vast institutions like the Roman
Catholic Church.
At the end of last year it seemed almost as if the Church, like a vast
brocade, was gradually unravelling at the seams, as the problems piled high
on the desk of the hapless Benedict XVI. With his health deteriorating, the
Church divided and the Vatican in uproar, he decided on a strategy that was
to give new life to the Church he loved. He retired. History may well regard
it as his greatest hour.
What’s beginning to look progressively like a revolution came from an
unlikely source – the assembled cardinals at the ensuing conclave in Rome. A
change of direction, they agreed, was necessary and that became the
unspoken, semi-official position. The person chosen to deliver it was an
unlikely 76-year-old, mildly eccentric (by Vatican standards), an astute and
personable Argentinian who delighted in telling everyone he was a sinner.
Little did we think, nine months ago, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged
blinking into the Roman night on the balcony of St Peter’s that we were at
the beginning of an unlikely revolution in attitude in the Catholic church.
After a long winter of discontent, spanning two papacies and almost four
decades, suddenly the prospect of a new dawn was upon us. After all the
efforts to block the reforms envisaged at the Second Vatican Council
(Vatican Two), after all the efforts to stifle debate on key pastoral
issues, after all the efforts to return the Church to the nineteenth
century, after all the trampling over all our dreams, we couldn’t quite
believe it was happening.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, unpredictably, there came from the pampas of South
America, a knight on a white horse, wearing a white soutane and sporting a
white zucchetto (the cap-een) perched on his head at a rakish angle, to
rescue the Church from the dark cul-de-sacs of history and to point it
towards the light of promise and possibility.
Suddenly, again, the core of the Gospel – the love and mercy of God revealed
to us in Jesus Christ – became more important than, for example, sexual
moral teaching and the political campaigns, waged not wisely but too well,
against abortion, contraception, homosexuality. Suddenly, after years in a
dense forest, it was as if we found ourselves in a great clearance. A new
dawn had broken. A new beginning beckoned us into a new and different
A real difficulty is comprehending the immensity of the change in direction
and attitude. Could the reign of control and negativism that characterised
the half-century since Vatican Two be coming to an end?
The supporters of Benedict can’t bring themselves to believe it, as they run
around wondering what has happened to their secure, unchanging Church. A
distressed email I received recently from an anonymous reader makes the
point: ‘Why does this particular pope believe he has the right to open up
Christ’s teachings for renegotiation and consultation?’
People like myself who have been banging on for more than thirty years in
this column about the need for the freedom and space to allow Vatican Two to
reap its due harvest can’t quite believe it either. Another recent email I
received asked: ‘Are you also a scriptwriter for Pope Francis? I thought you
just wrote for the Western People. Then I read Evangelii Gaudium and wondered.
Maybe he’s a regular reader of the Western?’
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) can’t quite believe it too. Three
years ago the ACP were personae non grata with the official Church to such a
degree that the Apostolic Visitors from Rome who investigated what was wrong
with the Catholic Church in Ireland came to the conclusion that part of the
problem was ‘dissident priests’! Yet in the space of six short months the
ACP went from being derided and ridiculed for our radical platform of reform
to the sudden reality that Pope Francis was singing from the same hymn-sheet
as the ACP and stealing all our best lines. Suddenly almost everything we
had wished for was now on the table as Francis announced that the reforms of
Vatican Two hadn’t been implemented and we needed to get on with it.
More than nine months after his election as pope, it’s gradually dawning
that this isn’t a mirage (after so long in the desert) but the only game in
town. And it’s happening already. Pope Francis is an old man in a hurry and
he’s not wasting whatever time he has.
He isn’t just sending signals – the Ford Focus instead of the papal
limousine, refusing to live in the papal palace, celebrating his recent
birthday with four homeless people, and so on. He’s working to a plan which
he has spelt out in detail in his interview with the Jesuit press and
through his recent ‘exhortation’. And no one is in any doubt now that he
intends to introduce systematic reform in our Church and that he is prepared
to face the inevitable opposition, like replacing the Latin Mass sponsor,
Cardinal Raymond Burke, as a member of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops
with a more pastoral bishop.
So, for 2014, hang on to your hats as this may be a bumpy ride. Francis has
created a new optimism and given new hope to a Church that had lost its
Vatican Two compass and in the process he’s created hugh possibilities for
reform. At a wider level he has also mesmerised the world by his humanity
and the joy that seem to radiate from the very core of his being. Time Man
of the Year for 2014?

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  1. Does anyone else think that it inappropriate and unChristian to refer to another person as ‘hapless’ as Pope Benedict is referred to in the 2nd paragraph?
    Surely we are all trying our best to live out our Christian calling and insulting people, whether they are liberal or conservative, right wing or left, lay, religious or clerical does not help.

  2. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Benedict had true humility even though he is compared unfavourably with Francis. We just didn’t hear much, if anything about it. Humility is like that: it doesn’t boast. One definition of humility is ‘seeing your place, and taking it’, even if that means getting into the back of a Mercedes Benz that has been provided for you.

  3. Gene Carr says:

    Surely we should not need to labour the point that differences in personality, background, style and doctrinal/pastoral emphasis, on the part of different occupants of the papal office, are not indicative of any differences on substantial or core issues. I can find no evidence that Francis differs from his predecessors on such core issues. One can also search through the documents and encyclicals written by John Paul and Benedict and find no evidence whatsoever that they contradicted or tried to ‘block’ the authentic teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

  4. Joe O'Leary says:

    Reading the Apostolic Exhortation — it is the most readable thing a pope ever produced, and is very luminous on every topic it touches. I think we should adopt it as a subject for meditation, learning Francis’s generous, intelligent and persuasive vision of what our faith is all about. He is very clued in, and gently identifies one problem after another trying to undo the blockages.

  5. Joe O'Leary says:

    The Apostolic Exhortation had a few brilliant quotes which, when I looked up the notes, turned out to be from Benedict.

  6. Willie Herlihy says:

    Pope John Paul 11 re made the Catholic Church, in the image of a totalitarian communist state, he substituted the politburo with the curia and the secret police with the congration for the doctrine of the faith (INQUISITION).
    Therefore taking the Catholic Church back to the nineteenth century and re making into an autocratic institution.
    Pope Francis on the other hand is a breath of fresh air, He may not differ from his predecessors on core issues.
    He certainly differs in style, he is only getting started, collegiality is once again centre stage, he even refers to himself as the bishop of Rome.
    I agree with Brendan as the saying goes “we aint seen nothing yet”.

  7. Brendan writes well and makes some excellent hope-filled points. Unfortunately, unkind barbs at those who disagree with him come out and detract from the main point.

  8. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says:

    Fr Brendan Hoban does write well and he seems to have the courage to say the truth from his heart, probably because of his deep love for his faith, and his desire for the true message of Jesus to be realized in the church.
    I remember a Jesuit saying that Jesus is to be our center, not the church. Sadly, for too many years, the church has replaced Jesus with itself.
    For many years as a cradle Catholic, I have wondered where is Jesus in the Roman Catholic Church? It has been all about what the church teaches rather than what Jesus said and taught, even to developing an extensive catechism to make clear that the Catholic Church was to be the center of truth, rather than Jesus.
    At least that has been my perception about how the leaders of the church have been trying to increase their power and control over our lives by preaching to us, by suppressing dialogue, and by refusing to listen to us.
    The Association of Catholic Priests has been so vital to giving hope that our voices could be heard. I have great respect for the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland where healthy dialogue about the faith has been allowed to take place and where the voices of women have been respected.
    I believe that the 8 years under Pope Benedict XVI were not only hapless, which my dictionary defines as unfortunate, but his years as pope have been very destructive to the true message of Jesus.
    Fear of the world seemed to be a hallmark of Pope Benedict, in my view. In contrast, Fr Jim Martin, S.J. said in another article on this website, that the world is where God is to be found. Pope Francis is being faithful to the message of Jesus and to the teaching of St Ignatius of Loyola by stressing that God can be found in all things.
    I for one look forward to holding onto my hat for 2014, for the possible bumpy road that the first Jesuit pope is leading us on, as we do our best to focus on Jesus, rather than on the institutional church.
    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., M.Spir., Chicago, Illinois, USA

  9. Joe O'Leary says:

    The numerous ‘shout outs’ to episcopal conferences worldwide is a very significant aspect of the Apostolic Exhortation, so different from the self-quoting of JP2 and B16, which gave the impressions that only the Vatican magisterium counted and treated that magisterium as a body of law to be cited in lawyerly fashion. Francis is relocating his teaching office where it belongs, not soaring loftily above that of the other bishops but in fraternal mutual collaboration with them.

  10. Malcolm R says:

    “After a long winter of discontent, spanning two papacies and almost four decades, suddenly the prospect of a new dawn was upon us.
    After all the efforts to block the reforms envisaged at the Second Vatican Council,
    After all the efforts to stifle debate on key pastoral issues, After all the efforts to return the Church to the nineteenth century,
    After all the trampling over all our dreams, we couldn’t quite believe it was happening”.
    I wonder how many men who have withdrawn from active ministry, would not have done so, if there had even been an inkling of a move to fully implement VAT II.
    We can only pray, that the Holy Spirit will inspire all of us to greater things, through the example of Francis, our brother in Christ

  11. Gene Carr says:

    Malcolm R (no. 10) speaks of a “long winter of discontent, spanning two papacies” and then “wonders how many men, who have withdrawn from the ministry, would no have done so . . .”
    Someone correct me if I am wrong, but my statistics tell me that the largest losses from the priesthood and religious life happened in the late 1960s and the 1970s before the election of John Paul II and before the appointment of Cardinal Ratzinger to the CDF. If anything they stopped the rot and put the Church back on the right track envisaged by Vatican II.

  12. Joe O'Leary says:

    “they stopped the rot” — Gene, are you not aware of the famous statement of seminary rector Donald Cozzens that the legacy of John Paul II to the church is a gay priesthood?

  13. roy donovan says:

    I wonder if the statistics for the past few decades were known of priests who have left Irish dioceses since the 1980’s. I think in or around 25 or more have left in each of the dioceses of Limerick, Cashel and Kildare. I doubt if that amount left after the 1960s. Also I wonder why doesn’t anybody want to face or address these statistics!

  14. I thank Brendan for another excellent article, summing up very succinctly the wonders of the last nine months in our Church. I do find it hard to believe that there are still those who cannot believe the “reign of control and negativity” which we experienced for the last 45 years finally came to an end on March 13th 2013. Brendan was being kind to Ratzinger with his use of the adjective “hapless” I think it was much worse that that. In fairness to the man, I think he probably realised that himself and did the decent and very radical thing.
    In the link below, Francis talks about the “little monsters” our Church can produce. The little monsters produced in the last 45years must now be running scared. At least, I hope they are.

  15. Benedict v. Francis, what does it matter? Surely we must go with St Paul when he say something about ‘leaving all that is behind, we press forward’. Six months ago the Holy Spirit moved in the Church is a way which has left most of us (even non-Catholics and atheists) thrilled and excited. Brendan, I’m up for the ‘bumpy ride’!
    But can someone tell me, an 80 year old Irish man, living in a small rural parish in England, how best I can contribute to the movement of the Spirit. We’ve been without a priest for six months. Then we had one for 16 months, but shared him with another parish. Now we are about go get another temporary PP, who will take with him his present full time job – so we’ll have one third of a PP! All the time the laity are not even consulted.
    We need the Francis effect at grass roots level.

  16. Gene Carr says:

    In his recent Exhortation, Pope Francis included a list of some 217 references to sources, which he relied upon. They make for an interesting analysis. The most frequently cited sources are John Paul II, followed by Benedict XVI–about one-third of the total. Paul VI was the next highest. The most frequently cited theologian was St Thomas; other theologians mentioned were De Lubac and Guardini (apart from a sprinkling of Church Fathers). No ‘new theologians’ or ‘liberation theologians’ were cited (as far as I could tell). Only the style and rhetoric is different (and welcome).

  17. @14, I realise now my mental arithmetic has let me down. The “reign of control and negativity ” that Brendan refers to is something we have endured, in my view, for 35 years not 45.
    The philosophy of Paul VI’S pontificate was that the ” faithful have to be convinced not coerced”. After that it all changed.

  18. Brendan Hoban SSC says:

    The unlikely “76 year-old” reminds me of the man who became John XXIII and brought the Vatican Council in to open the windows. Pope Francis speaks a language of that time and even when quoting his predecessors, he uses their language in a fresh and living way. With the first document of Vat II on the Liturgy, we got the taste of priest facing people; unity in diversity of language and symbols; and the three basic principles of the Council – dialogue, participation and co-responsibility. Pope Francis is setting the lead and as he says the challenge is for us to follow.
    Brendan Hoban SSC

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