We live in strange times. What goes round, we say, comes round. Fifty years ago we thought the insights and the energy of the Second Vatican Council would radically change the Catholic Church, turning us in a new, more hopeful direction. But we didn’t reckon with the resilience of reactionary forces within the Vatican to mount an effective rear-guard action and defend their positions. Nor did we even contemplate that two popes – John Paul II and Benedict XVI – would encourage a retreat back to the past and a careful dismantling of whatever progress had been made.
Three years ago some priests decided to found an association – Association of Catholic Priests – to argue for the need, almost fifty years on, to rediscover the insights of the Great Council. And to start a debate on the direction our Church had taken.
What we didn’t realise was that the same debate was taking place among the cardinals, frustrated by the dominance of Rome and the lack of progress in implementing Vatican II. The cardinals wouldn’t have admitted, of course, that such discussions were ongoing or the implicit criticism of popes that they represented. Loyalty to Rome is a core value for cardinals – rocking the boat is not.
Then suddenly Pope Benedict retired opening a door that the cardinals almost took off the hinges, such was their haste to get through. The unexpected
vacancy allowed them to surface issues that for years they wanted to discuss, to ask questions that for decades they were unprepared to express publicly. They sought a candidate for the papacy who would reflect the growing consensus that the Church needed to rediscover and implement Vatican II, that the Vatican bureaucracy was out of control and needed to be reformed and diminished, that the status of bishops needed to be enhanced and that the Pope wasn’t a cultish monarch dominating the Catholic world but the bishop of Rome, the first among equals.
Suddenly as if from heaven last March Pope Francis emerged blinking into the Roman twilight; his dress was devoid of traditional papal insignia; and, significantly, he introduced himself as ‘the bishop of Rome’. Eight years ago I watched, almost in despair, as Pope Benedict laden down with papal regalia was introduced to the world, underlining the terrible promise that the long winter of our discontent would continue.
But here was a 76-year-old man from South America, who had taken the name Francis (the saint who had resisted being institutionalised by the Church of his day), whose first words were Buono sera (Good evening) and who asked the crowd for their blessing. And in the days that followed, as he refused to live in the grandiose papal apartments, or drive in the papal limousine, we realised that we were dealing with a very different kind of pope.
Anyone who would doubt that has only to read the new biography Pope Francis, Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely. (Read it – it could change your life).Vallely traces the life and times of Jorge Bergoglio, particularly his ‘conversion’ from the arrogant, authoritarian Jesuit superior who refused to countenance the activities of Jesuits in the slum parishes of Buenos Aires to the archbishop who actively encouraged his priests to stay close to the people in the slums.
Vallely traces his journey – ‘the story of a man who has undergone if not a religious conversion, then at any rate a deep inner transformation which has wrought a profound and long-lasting change in both his personal and political vision’.
Francis, Vallely writes is ‘a radical but not a liberal, an enabler with an authoritarian streak, a self-confident man in constant need of forgiveness, and a churchman who combines religious humility and political wiles’.
From the beginning Francis has been a pope of surprises. However, the perception that he’s a simple sort, good-natured but naive, is very wide of the mark. He’s nothing of the sort. He’s a man with a plan, a very studied plan. And part of the plan is contained in the very name ‘Francis’.
The story of the Swiss Guard makes the point. A young Swiss guard was on duty standing guard all night outside the papal apartments. Early in the morning Francis came out of his apartment and offered him a chair. He told the pope he couldn’t sit as he was under orders from his captain. ‘He’s only the captain’, Francis said, ‘I’m the pope, sit down’.
The incident illustrates two dimensions of Pope Francis: one, the common touch; and, two, I’m the Pope. I’m in charge. And at 76, he knows that his time is limited to do what he wants to do. So hold on to your hats, this old man (like predecessor, John XXIII) is a pope in a hurry!
So what’s the plan? What will he do? We get a great insight into his intentions from the now famous interview he gave to Jesuit publications around the world. It is effectively his first encyclical, a hugely important document, and it’s very much his own thoughts, not having been pushed through the sieve of Vatican-speak.
So what will he do? Reform the Church (Vatican II is back on the agenda); focus on context (sympathetic, non-judgemental approach to people’s struggles); Vatican departments will be cut back and reformed (local Church will be the focus); a new balance in terms of the priority of doctrine (less talk about sex); women will be involved in decision-making (because the Church needs them); more debate, discussion, real consultation (less being told what’s good for us); a focus on the local Church (rather than on Rome); finding God in the lived experiences of people (rather than ‘bringing’ God to people); priests are ‘ministers of mercy’ walking with their people and carrying their burdens (not officials or bureaucrats administering a
system); liturgy is simple, understandable (no Latin or lace).
The first challenge – for people, priests and bishops – is to wake up to the fact that things have changed and will continue to change and to take the tide Francis offers our Church.