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Pope Francis has opened a door – let us enter

When he first appeared on the balcony of St Peter¹s last March he looked
somewhat hesitant, almost diffident. By the time he had finished speaking,
however, it was clear that something new and exciting was happening. His
familiar style of address, his request for prayers, his stress on being
Bishop of Rome and his gentle smile all combined to suggest something of
great interest was brewing.

And so it has proved to be. We have a pope who makes the church seem
attractive, from whose core emanates the good news of mercy and love, the
Gospel of Joy, with an instinctive and intelligent reaching out to and from
the poor and marginalised. You get a sense that this is not someone who is
either afraid of the world or condemnatory only, but who rejoices in the
beauty and wonder of life, while not blind to its cruelty and injustice. He
does condemn that injustice, while calling those responsible for it to
conversion. He has the gift of speaking in graphic images which touch hearts
as well as minds, inside the church and way beyond its confines.
What is extraordinary in all this is that he has managed, seemingly
effortlessly, to combine the notion of a missionary church, with good news
for our world, with that of internal church reform ­ and show that the two
are intrinsically linked. And so, for example, in his remarks about the
culture of consumerism and its deadening effects (‘the globalization of
indifference¹), his analysis moves on to critique the structures of the
dominant neo-liberal economic model (with its deficient ‘trickle down¹
economic theory) and calls for reform – while, at the same time, instituting
reform within the Vatican¹s own financial structures, well aware that to
call for the former without the latter would be to greatly weaken the force
of his argument. And all the time one gets a sense of someone who is in
touch with the miseries of the poor (and yet well aware of how much they
have to teach the rest of us), of the need for attitudinal and cultural
conversion, but also for new structures of economic, social and political
And, of course, this carries over to his analysis of ecclesial life. He is
clear that it has to be more collegial, less monarchical, at all levels,
including that of the papacy itself. He leads by example ­ where he lives,
the car he uses, the dress he wears, the people he greets- so that,
amazingly, in his humility he has the courage and strong sense of self to
take on a centuries old Vatican culture which takes for granted a very
different way of doing things. But he is also clear that attitudinal change
on its own is insufficient ­ and so he set up the collegial group of 8
Cardinals (the so-called C8) to help govern the church and, in particular,
to reform the Roman Curia, he has invited world-wide consultation on the
family (the focus of many disputed areas of teaching in the Church) as part
of his aim to make the Synod of Bishops a more dynamic body, he has
established a group to examine the issue of clerical child sexual abuse and,
as noted already, a new Vatican Council for the Economy with 7 lay expert
members among the group of 15, and he has made some important new
I suggest there are several interesting developments to watch out for over
the next while. The first, drawn to our attention very cogently by Mary
McAleese in a recent Tablet article (March 8, 2014), is whether his notion
of a collegial church will include shared decision-making or just
consultation. From his Jesuit background Francis would be familiar with the
notion of widespread consultation (although, she has confessed, he did not
himself practise this well enough when Provincial), but also with the
juridical right of one person alone to make the decision. A synodical way of
proceeding (which he has affirmed) involves not just consultation but also
decision making (as, in practice, is very often the case in Jesuit life and,
perhaps much more so, in other religious congregations). Can he find the
correct structures and institutions to make this a reality, a reality which
will survive his own demise?
Secondly, since at the very least he is advocating that consultation be real
and not just token and ceremonial, and since he views the lay faithful and
in particular the poor as a locus theologicus, a source of theology and
teaching, then how will he handle situations where the ‘sense of the
faithful¹ is clearly at odds with current Catholic teaching? Already one
gets a sense that there may be some movement possible on the issue of access
to the Eucharist for people who are divorced and remarried, and that, very
sensibly, not by way of Papal authority but collegially, by way of the Synod
of Bishops, with and under the Bishop of Rome (cum et sub Petro). But what
of an issue like the ordination of women, which he has already said is not
up for discussion? I simply note here his own words to his fellow bishops
that they should listen to everyone ‘and not simply to those who would tell
him what he would like to hear¹ (Evangelii Gaudium, 31). Will he have the
confidence to trust in the process of discernment ­ not a populist listening
to the loudest voices of course- which may lead the Church into
uncomfortable places?

Thirdly, it will be interesting to see if he can follow through on his
desire that women should have a more prominent, visible role in Church life,
not least in decision making. Again the distinction he makes between
‘sacramental power¹ and other forms of power will surely be tested here. I
note Cardinal Kasper¹s regret that women are not involved in the preparation
for the upcoming Synod. I note too that no female economist figures on the
list of lay experts chosen for the new Council for the Economy.
Finally, while it is undoubtedly true that the Church can too easily be
scapegoated around the issue of sexual abuse and that much progress has been
made, it nevertheless remains true that at central level the Church was slow
to learn and must surely bear some responsibility for the terrible damage
done. Legally the Church tends to fall back on what theologian Gerard
Mannion calls a ‘negative subsidiarity¹ in this matter, arguing that the
Holy Sea has no responsibility for what goes on in local, regional areas.
But of course for centuries this same Church has failed to exercise a
‘positive subsidiarity¹ by allowing real power to local churches, so that
the central administration must bear some moral responsibility at least for
failures at local level. One thinks in Ireland of the very mixed messages
coming from the Vatican at a time when the Irish Bishops were trying to get
their Guidelines passed advising mandatory reporting to civil authorities.
And one wonders about the responsibility of the central administration even
still to more pro-actively follow up on this issue in parts of the world
where seemingly, but improbably, there is little cause for discussion or
Francis ­ and maybe even Brian O¹Driscoll, in his own ‘field of play¹?!-
would be the last to want any cult of celebrity, verging on idolatry. He
surely has his own cultural blind-spots and it would be foolish of the rest
of us simply to sit back and admire, as if there was nothing for us to do.
At the core of his message, the message of Jesus Christ, is that each of us,
guided by the Holy Spirit, has a unique role to play ­ in life and, for the
baptized, in the Church. We can surely be grateful for this wonderful moment
of opportunity, and to Francis for providing it. Now let¹s use it, let¹s go
through the door that has opened, and let¹s make our own contribution which,
with the Spirit¹s help will involve dialogue, sometimes confrontation, and
always greater richness.

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  1. I find since Francis became Pope, I am looking less towards the Pope. Well, I’m still reading blogs and getting irritated (I’m working on that), but as someone else said on another site, we’ve all been infected with a certain Ultra-montanism or Papolatry. And we, the fans of Benedict XVI, just over a year ago, are guilty as charged. Now it seems like you have your man, and maybe you do. But the Catholic Church is bigger than one man, and one man can only do so much. No Pope can change the Doctrines of the Catholic Church. I’m not saying Francis wants to, but he couldn’t even if he did. I need to look to Jesus Christ and the Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium of the Church, not to individual popes or bishops. Perhaps in all the chaos and confusion, God is saying ”LOOK TO ME! LOVE ME! My Vicar on earth is to serve ME! Do not focus on him – I will look after him!”

    If I can look instead to JESUS CHRIST rather than fixating on the ruminations and confusion of men, which only causes upset and confusion, then perhaps this year’s irritation, confusion, and scandal can begin to bear abundant fruit, and out of chaos, God can produce order. That’s my spin on it tonight. 🙂 Let us not forget the large swathes of Catholics who are not rejoicing at one year of this Francis Pontificate, but who are upset, confused, and disillusioned. I don’t think any of us could have predicted what happened this year. I know I certainly didn’t.

  2. #1
    I’m quite sure that Francis himself would echo what Shaun is saying here. The tendency to make fascinating icons of living individuals has more to do with the power and needs of the media than with the eternal Spirit of Wisdom, which seeks to reach and touch all of us in our own space, AMDG.
    At the same time Pope Francis has surely liberated the church to think this way. Evangelii Gaudium is a charter for an understanding of subsidiarity that reaches directly to every individual – to rise to the challenge of compassion, service and mercy in all of our relationships. It poses a direct challenge to bishops not to stand in the way of this proactivity: “The bishop must above all allow the flock to strike out on new paths.” (EG 31)
    At the same time it warns against sterile conflict: “No to warring among ourselves” (EG 98 seq) Somehow we must all find ways of being proactive that heal current divisions rather than exacerbate them, asking and giving forgiveness.
    If Evangelii Gaudium has persuaded bishops to tolerate ‘mess’ (EG 49) there is surely room for radical change without conflict. Let’s pray that our Irish bishops will soon signal clearly that they have heard this, and will also “develop the means of participation proposed in Canon Law” (EG 37) – to the outer limit of what that formulation permits. It is time above all for them to lose their paralysing fear of assembly – of appearing at open diocesan meetings for free, honest interchange. Evangelii Gaudium surely provides the opening agenda for that as well.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Perhaps what we are witnessing is connected with Newman’s vision of Christianity as a living Idea constantly capable of Development. Development is often a very surprising process, drawing from the resources of Scripture and Tradition things new and old. The Church’s vigorous denunciation of slavery as inherently evil is a quite recent Development, yet it draws on the essential truths of the Gospel and of Christian philosophy. Lots of old attitudes, practices, and defensive dogmatic utterances were swept away as this greater truth came to the fore. Again, the Council of Chalcedon’s account of the two natures of Christ, inseparably but unconfusedly united in one hypostasis, must have seemed a strange novelty to many, and indeed is still rejected by some schismatic churches today, yet is cast retrospective light on all Christlogical thought until then and continues to be a beacon of Christological reflection. Again, Nostra Aetate’s doctrine on Judaism, drawn directly from Romans 9-11 and overriding centuries of “the teaching of contempt” and arrogant supersessionism, has generated confusion among the Lefebvrites, but most have embraced it as expressing a greater and more central Christian truth. What Francis is taken to stand for is clearly being embraced with great enthusiasm, though a minority are perplexed. This may be a movement of the Spirit, at work as a kind of instinct in the bosom of the people of God. In any case, Development in action is always “messy”.

  4. Con Devree says:

    The challenge of course is how to get people back attending Mass again. The latest PEW study in the United States shows no evidence at all of any such trend among Catholics in the United States in the past twelve months.

    Among the separated ecclesial communities, the vibrant churches of Washington, DC, (most of them founded over the last decade or so), that attract young people, are “conservative”, (horrible term). This according to Mark D. Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

    He cites Tim Keller of the “conservative” Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). He is famous for his Redeemer Church in Manhattan, which has attracted thousands of members. “He remains conservative on theology and sex while admitting that many of his urban church attenders are socially liberal.”

    According to Tooley: This is because young social liberals desiring to worship prefer churches with spiritual vitality that profess a transcendent message challenging their own worldly preferences. In other words, these young people aren’t that much different from other spiritual seekers almost everywhere who, consciously or not, cleave to a faith that demands rather than accommodates. This helps the channelling process of the Pope’s desired “missionary impulse” It resembles the pattern of the flourishing religious orders in the US.

    This message has been emerging from Rome for a number of decades, and still does. But the “trickle down” effect is even less evident than that in the imagined economic world. Hopefully the Pope’s way of doing things will not be used as a means of digressing from his central message for too long more.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    The poor have nothing to teach the rest of us except that poverty is a great injustice and should not exist in a world made for all to enjoy equally.
    The Pope could make poverty history but he won’t because he and the church would be redundant if there were not poor people to recruit to the church and to suffer for Jesus.
    The pope might not have a big car but he also doesn’t suffer as poverty is a choice for him as it is not for the poor. I am not poor but I am not rich and I don’t want to be rich because therein does not lie happiness. This is the richest institution in the world and they have no factories and produce nothing, all the money really belongs to the donators.
    “Holy Sea” not sure what that is except a big fishing ground for new souls.

  6. Con (4) : “The challenge of course is how to get people back to attending Mass again”. The challenge depends on who you are. It’s the challenge maybe if you are a bishop or a parish priest and you’d like bigger congregations and you would like to be successful. But if you are an ordinary christian the challenge might be to find a place where real living spirituality is practiced.

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