What will the Pope achieve?

Pope Francis: forging a legacy

Robert Mickens
Pope Francis has been Bishop of Rome for only two and a half years. In this relatively short period of time he has been incredibly successful in reigniting the hopes and enthusiasm of reform-minded and self-described Vatican II Catholics.
Through prophetic gestures and words he has emerged as a sort-of “evangelical free-spirit” unencumbered by the restrictions of the Vatican’s often-arcane protocols and human traditions. This has created an irresistible worldwide appeal even among non-Catholics and non-believers.
It’s no wonder why so many people talk about a Francis Revolution, a notion that — ironically — causes more consternation among certain traditionalist Catholics than it does among avowed atheists.
But whether one thinks of history’s first Jesuit pope as a breath of fresh air or as a threat to the church’s (still, very much in-tact) Tridentine edifice, the more fundamental question is this: Can Francis leave a lasting impact on the church that none of his successors will ever be able to undo?
It all depends on his ability to make significant changes (reforms) to the current structures that regulate ecclesial governance and ministry. The pope has rightly insisted that the first reform must be attitudinal change and he has energetically initiated this. But without structural changes Francis’ only real legacy will likely be that he was a prophetic, saintly and an evangelical “pope of the poor.”
That would have been the same legacy of Pope John XXIII, too, had he not convened the Second Vatican Council, the most transformative event in the Catholic Church over the past five hundred years.
It is still too early to know what will be the long-lasting heritage of the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But it’s likely that part of it will be their efforts (for nearly thirty years as a tandem) to domesticate the Council’s reforming spirit and guard against any further structural changes or doctrinal developments.
There are clear indications that Pope Francis does not want to convene another ecumenical council (he has said he wants to implement the last one). And there is also ample evidence that he does not wish to continue the restorationist policy of his two most recent predecessors.
His November 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, offers a blueprint for a very different type of pontificate. This remarkable document is very much the Argentine pope’s more expansive interpretation of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution, Lumen Gentium, and it constitutes his own manifesto for Church reform.
At the heart of this reform are synodality (the entire Church walking, discerning and evangelizing together), episcopal collegiality (shared governing responsibility between pope and bishops) and subsidiarity (decentralization of decision-making authority) — to name just three core principles the exhortation says are needed in order to renew the church. What the document leaves unsaid is that the creation of new structures or the significant alteration of old ones is absolutely essential to making these principles integral to the Catholic church’s life. And they are key to hastening the increasingly urgent task of bringing about full church unity, especially with the Orthodox and the Reform communities.
But up to this point the only major reforms under Francis have been in the realm of Vatican financial management. Most people in the church, and especially those in the media, have lauded Francis’ reorganization of the so-called Vatican bank and his creation of a major Vatican department to oversee all financial activity. They have also praised him for recently undertaking a major restructuring of the Vatican’s media outreach.
And these are certainly commendable initiatives. But assuring more accountable stewardship of the church’s financial resources or its communications activities pales in significance to, say, providing Christ’s faithful with the spiritual care that is their baptismal right.
For example, there is an acute priest shortage throughout most of the world and unless the structures and disciplines that regulate ordained ministry are changed the shortage will become even more severe.
Francis could make a major contribution to this area as a reformer if he were to revive — as he has indicated his willingness to do — the ancient practice of allowing married men to be ordained to the presbyterate. This will not, in and of itself, stem the tide of those leaving the church, but it would be a just and charitable response to those many millions of Catholics who are now deprived of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, because there are too few priests.
A married priesthood, if implemented with care and farsightedness, could also contribute to the dismantling of the cancer of clericalism, which finds especially fertile soil amidst an all-male (and disproportionately gay) priestly class.
The institution (or some scholars argue, the re-institution) of the female diaconate could also be another way of countering the unwholesome clericalist ethos. It, too, would be an act of justice by bringing a healthy presence of women into the ordained ministry and decision-making levels of the church.
The necessary reform of the Roman Curia is one of the first projects Francis began studying immediately after his election. The first small but important step was the creation of a Council of Cardinals to assist him in this enterprise and in his “governance of the universal Church.” The pope has met with his C9, as it is often called, only ten times since it was established. They will hold their next gathering from September 14-16.
People are understandably concerned that more than two years have passed and no real reform of the church’s central bureaucracy has been brought forward. Some are worried that, in the end, any “reforms” will only be window dressing.
Perhaps the most concrete way Francis can escape this fate and forge his legacy as a true reformer of the Roman Curia is by curbing the authority of its various offices and bolstering that of the Synod of Bishops.
Synodal or patriarchal church governance is more ancient than the monarchical papacy. And Francis could restore this dynamic by subjugating the Curia to the authority of the Synod of which he is head and president.
When Paul VI re-established the Synod of Bishops within the Roman Church in 1965 he intended it to be merely a papal advisory body. But because of ancient custom he could not but stipulate, albeit cautiously, the following:
It can also enjoy the power of making decisions when such power is conferred upon it by the Roman Pontiff; in this case, it belongs to him to ratify the decisions of the Synod.
This clause is rarely quoted today. But Pope Francis could expand it and make the Synod’s deliberative power normative. The Bishop of Rome’s special role as chief pastor of the universal church would not be threatened since he would retain his prerogative to ratify or veto the Synod’s decisions.
Yes, Francis has been a breath of fresh air. He has instilled new hope into the lives of millions of Catholics. And this is because his words and gestures continue to suggest that healthy change and development can take place in the structures and disciplines of the church.
But his longstanding legacy will depend on whether or not they actually do.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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  1. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    I guess the Pope is pretty much like everyone else in the world. He is only going to do what he either A. wants or B. is forced. How do you force a Pope to do anything : by collective voice. Yours is strong but are your channels/networks too weak still? Do you have what it takes to rally support in favour of the reforms that the general population wants to see? This has yet to be discovered. It is funny how the Pope is running with this climate thing. Petition. Awareness. Social media. He is using every channel he can to promote it and people are doing it on his behalf. He is showing us the way but are we too set in an old model of doing things to respond? So it is sound strategy for the Pope to encourage the world to sign a petition on the environment but the ACP felt it important to serve its platform to a small demographic early on and then move on to the endless wanting of a conversation with the Nuncio. He is on track but will you ever see the err in your ways? Don’t want a conversation – have one with as many people as you possibly can as quickly as you can. I can’t continue to follow your progress because it seems like you are all at a standstill waiting for your next general assembly. For what purpose?

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    Lloyd Allan MacPherson @2
    I guess the Pope is pretty much like everyone else in the world. He is only going to do what he either A. wants or B. is forced.
    Yes Llyod, Pope Francis is just a man and like any man he will have to contend with his own personal brokenness and eventually give account for himself before our Father in heaven as we all will have to do. In life all of us encounter evil with all its different faces. We do not always act with integrity we are impaired through our own weakness and sinfulness, we turn a blind eye, we justify what we have done or didn’t do we hide (run away) from the Truth all of mankind does this.
    But Pope Francis the Bishops and all our Shepherds are not like everyone else in the world.
    They have taken on the mantle of Jesus Christ before our Father in heaven and have committed themselves to serving and proclaiming the Truth before all of mankind, no easy task as it carries serious responsibilities,’ as in time they will have to give account for their actions or inactions in relationship to how they led the flock.
    Should we the Laity expect Pope Francis to reflect a holy priesthood?
    And if so what do we mean by holiness?
    The antidote to human frailty and sinfulness is honesty (Truth). Honesty leads us into humility (Holiness)
    Do we see the Truth been served in regards to the abuse crisis cover up and acknowledgement of its historical culture within the Church? Absolutely not
    Is the laity been led by example in serving the Truth?
    We find the answer in these words taken from the article (Link) below
    “In their deceptions and rationales, they put aside the God of love and justice and mercy. They put aside the God who summoned the little children. They put aside, for venal reasons, the God of life they so ardently preached.
    Peter, we know, made no excuses, didn’t try to spin his denial. He “wept bitterly.” The community today waits, wondering what sacramental act might restore trust so deeply broken”.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Funny to hear you speak of the abuse “crisis” in the church. I was wondering where you were these days. There is no abuse “crisis” in the church. There is an abuse crisis in the physical world, therefore it would most certainly appear in the church. How are Pope Francis and the Bishops not like everyone else in the world? Are we speaking of the supernatural here? Do they possess powers that haven’t been granted to all men/women? I’d like to hear how you think they are different by their own responsibilities and how those are any greater to ours to the 10 commandments. This is not a forgiving world we live in these days and your commitment to the abuse crisis in the church is apparent of this. For each of us who were affected, forgiveness is our saviour, or at least that has been the case for me. I haven’t forgotten how I felt as a child that this man was both a respected leader and an extremely tormented individual for some reason. The reason I believe now is that his confinement to an unnatural law led him to open the doorway to ethical relativism and once opened, quenched a thirst that had been suppressed. That is why I cautioned my local Bishop that the continuance of a mandatory celibate priesthood, while priests fall under the jurisdiction of human rights laws that state “forced celibacy” is illegal, is very controversial. If the right group came forward asking for the UN’s Charter on Human Rights to be applied to those within that framework, celibacy would quickly become a thing of the past, unless you were taking permanent residency in Rome, as the saying goes. So a crisis, yes I believe there is one especially where you find men/women tied to rules and regulations that do not make sense in society and elsewhere. As life becomes less natural, so do our actions. We as Christians decide to equally take on the mantle of Christ which has been, in my experience, seeing things through to the end, no matter what sacrifice has to be given to make things right.

  4. Kevin Walters says:

    (Edited version of much longer comment; Moderator)
    Lloyd, I did not say that there was an abuse “crisis” I said “abuse crisis cover up”
    “Does Pope Francis and the bishops possess powers that haven’t been granted to all men/women”?
    Of course not, they have the same responsibility as all Christian believers have, but they do have a charge laid upon them by Jesus Christ and they will have to give account for their actions or inactions in relationship to how they led the flock. Jesus says to the leaders of His Church
    “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden”;
    We see no light on a hill, the laity are not been led by example, either by Pope Francis or the Bishops in serving the Truth.
    You say
    “This is not a forgiving world we live in these days and your commitment to the abuse crisis in the church is apparent of this”.
    If you want to judge me Lloyd judge me on my sincerity which is reflected in many of my Posts over the last four years. I only became fully aware of the existence of the abuse crisis and subsequent cover up when I first started to participate on the ACP site about four years ago so this information is relatively new to me; prior to that I had lived isolated from the Church for over thirty years. Isolated in the sense that I was continually stone walled. My complaint goes far beyond one individual priest and it has still to be addressed. I would describe my life over those years as torturous. In some respect it is as if all the pain and suffering could be released upon an institution that has caused me and so many many others through its clerical culture so much suffering and this may account for my justifiable zeal. I hold no malice towards any man Lloyd there is no individual that I need to forgive. ………
    When I first found the ACP Site I rejoiced as I had prayed for many years that I would be heard by those with authority within the church but of course I now fully understand that the majority of the hierarchy of the Church only serve themselves but I consider my prayers in this regard to have been answered as I believe that through this site I will have been heard by the heart of His Church within the ACP and further afield. …..
    When someone I love has asked me “Do you love me”? My reply is yes, I do I love you very much indeed, I would do anything within my power for you, but I have to add there is one thing that I cannot do for you, that is to deliberately damage or hurt another in any way in order to protect or give advantage to you. I know that this is a living act of love as I have had to live with the consequences of this belief over all those years, this puts me in harmony with the Will of our Father in heaven as it endeavours to fulfil the first and second Commandment and from this I comprehend that Love its self is constrained by its own essence TRUTH. Evil can only be confronted by Truth which is the essence of Love.
    And yes Lloyd I also have taken on the mantel of Christ within the HEART and God willing I will continue to do so to the end.
    your brother in Christ

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Don’t create a celebrity out of the Pope, his Cardinals or his Bishops. We are all equal. We will be forgiven and so will they no matter the failure. If you are saying they won’t, then that is quite a statement to be made here. I’m not judging anyone, except those who feel that forgiveness is outside of the realm for some. I was led by an amazing example and I’m sure many of us here were and continue to be to this day. If you are looking to condemn someone, by all means, condemn them but I would warn against doing it on a website that has anything to do with Christianity in its title. I call it a philosophical collision of sorts. I was made aware of abuse in the Church (physical world) when I was 11. The cover-up, well that is not a Roman Catholic phenomenon let’s just say. That is human nature. In positions of power, we either cover it up or pass it around. That is a sin that everyone lives with, hence the necessity for forgiveness, and if not, then cast the first stone I guess. This site gives me hope for reform. That people can somehow create a process to be born anew is alive and well here. From time to time, I get the feeling that people can’t turn the corner for some reason. Fear prevents this from happening.

  6. Kevin Walters says:

    Lloyd, I don’t think that I am creating a celebrity out of the Pope, his Cardinals or his Bishops but rather pointing out their responsibility to the flock before our Father in heaven and of course all sin can be forgiven except the sin against the Holy Spirit. This site may give hope for reform but reform that does not incorporate The Truth will be built on sand. Only the Holy Spirit living within a truthful heart can create all anew and this been born anew is acted out individually and is manifest by bearing witness to the Truth/Love.
    Where can mankind look to see integrity at play, the Truth been served?
    If it cannot be seen in the Vatican and by implication Pope Francis, where?
    If the leaders of our Church cannot do this that HOPE is there for mankind?
    Our church is stale the fundamental teaching that God’s Word is inviolate has been compromised
    The Church needs to regain her moral authority but to do this it would take an act of humility, is it beyond the leaders of the Church to acknowledge their own failings with honesty before mankind?
    We need a more spiritual Church dedicated to serving the Truth if a new dawn is to break within the Church.
    The essence of Love is Truth, and those who serve the Truth on the spiritual plain feed the hungry
    “Man hall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”,
    Clothes (Protects) the naked “How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me”. Visit those hearts ensnared (Imprisoned) by evil in setting the captive free.
    The serving of the Truth over laps on to the worldly plain as it protects the weak and vulnerable form exploitation in opposing oppression, misery and inhumanity, to serve the Truth is to love ones neighbour as oneself it cannot be faked as it always involves carrying ones cross.
    You say
    “The cover-up, well that is not a Roman Catholic phenomenon let’s just say. That is human nature. In positions of power, we either cover it up or pass it around. That is a sin that everyone lives with, hence the necessity for forgiveness”
    Words fail me, here Lloyd
    “I get the feeling that people can’t turn the corner for some reason. Fear prevents this from happening”
    My post 5 has been heavily curtailed and I am grateful that the moderator has acknowledged this, if it had not been, I do not think that you would have made this comment.
    But yes you are right Lloyd It is fear, fear that I may participate (collude) with evil (The cover up) and in so doing pass the parcel (Problem) and leave it with those who can least defend themselves, who Pope Francis and the hierarchy have so cruelly betrayed.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  7. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    OK, at least let me dial it down a little Kevin. I understand your position. My overall position is this : I’ve been waiting my whole life for the Pope to do what he has done. No one is going to rain on my parade, sir. I can’t tell you how excited I am for the future. If I could categorize what he is doing right now with what I’ve felt needed to be done by the Roman Catholic Religion, you would think he was reading my playbook. I took an opportunity on various occasions to let my voice be known in North America long before I started it in Ireland, the home of the wise yet neutral. Calling for the Pope to take a more aggressive stance than Benedict on certain issues came true. The seven social sins he takes on at the most crucial stage in our history. It is cause for celebration, but better yet, cause for us to slow down on our cerebral pathways and belief that this is ultimately going to make the difference overall. This is not true. What we all collectively “do” now will ultimately make the difference from this point on. What are we all doing? That’s what the Pope has got to convince us of. And he will need to put his money where his mouth is. Guaranteed.

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