Positive Realistic Expectations of Pope Francis’ Visit

As I write this we are three days away from the arrival of Pope Francis in Ireland for his very short visit. I have spoken at a conference in Trinity College on Monday last (Voices Pope Francis will not hear), and have done various media interviews.

I find it interesting that as the week goes on I am becoming more and more a defender of the Pope against a barrage of negativity, especially in the media commentary and from the various spokespersons for different groups.

I believe Francis has made a big impact for good in the past five years. Yes, I know that there is so much that I wish he could have done, because the problems in our Church are great, and deep seated. We all have our own particular agendas that we wish he would prioritise. Personally I would love if he moved more quickly and decisively in reforming the Curia, and in particular the unjust processes of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Others want him to do much better on the equality of women in the Church. He has made some moves on trying to reshape the structure of the Church by promoting synodality, and listening to the People of God. But there is so much more to be done in that area. I could go on; the Church is in crisis and the solutions are difficult to discover and harder to implement.

But Francis is trying. And the opposition within the Church is great.

What he has done, and I think in the end it will be his legacy, is that he allowed freedom of discussion within the Church. The opinions I was censored and silenced for six years ago are now being freely debated with no sanction on anybody. In my view that is the most important change of all. From once there is free and open discussion in the Church change will inevitably happen. It won’t all happen in a few years, but it will come.

The clerical sex abuse issue has come to dominate the discussion around his visit here later this week. That is understandable, considering the recent revelations. But I think the expectations being placed on Francis are unfair and unrealistic. In my view we are still only at an early stage in dealing with this problem in the Catholic Church. Only now are we beginning to hear what has been happening in the Church in the developing world. I suspect the full story there will be much more troubling that anything that has come out so far.

Also, despite all the procedures and structure that have been put in place, at last there is the start, by a few commentators, of an analysis of the basic underlying attitudes and structures in the Church that are at the heart of this problem. I refer to things like Catholic sexual teaching, with its attitude to the body, to gender, to the meaning and value of relationships, to the primacy of law over love; so much needs to be done in this area that will take a long time. Priesthood too is clearly in trouble, and Francis recognizes this, with his regular condemnation of clericalism. We need a major re-thinking of the whole notion of ministry in the Church. That is also a task that cannot be done quickly.

But the first step in achieving any of these essential changes is to open up discussion, and Francis has done that.

So, let us not demand the impossible from him this weekend. I hope he says important things about clerical sexual abuse. I hope he acknowledges that the Vatican too has been complicit in the cover up. But I do not expect the victims spokespersons to be mollified by anything he says. Most of them will continue to be critical and dismissive. They have suffered greatly and, for them, the past cannot be undone.

I am glad Francis is coming, and I don’t expect him to do anything remarkable, or to perform any miracles. I believe him to be a good man. He described himself as ‘a sinner’. For me, what that means is that he is a man who recognizes his own weakness and failure, and that is a very healthy attitude for someone in his position. He appears to have genuine warmth and humanity. I believe him to be, in the best sense of the word, a holy man. That is what is motivating me to go to the Phoenix Park next Sunday, to join with him in the celebration of the Mass. I will not wear clerical garb, or enter through any special gate, or sit in any position of honour. I will be happy to be among the gathering of the people, to celebrate the equality of all the baptized.

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One Comment

  1. Brian Fahy says:

    Yes Tony, well said in every word and subject matter. When we were students, you in Ireland and myself in England, we heard about Vatican II and the ‘People of God’ and the ‘equal dignity of all the baptised’ but the Church we lived in was hierarchical to its bootstraps and clerical to the core. It has taken all these years for the messages of the Council to surface truly.

    I like very much the comments of Richard Shannon on this site about how we do not need a clerical superstructure in the People of God. We need a new way of being Church universal and local, and for ministry, to select men and women from our communities to be trained to preach the Word and to lead the Eucharist. It is coming.

    As O’Shaughnessy wrote so well, ‘We in the ages lying, in the buried past of the earth, built Niniveh with our sighing, and Babel itself was our mirth: and o’erthrew them with prophesying to the old of the new world’s worth; for each is an age that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.’

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