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Will church leaders rise to the challenge of Pope Francis?

Pope Francis has certainly created a new mood in the Church, a mood of optimism and hope. But his latest exhortation goes much further; it shows we have as pope a man who is determined that his period in the Vatican will be a time for more than just talk. It is clear now that there is a determination, almost a degree of impatience about him, like a man who realises that he hasn’t got an endless amount of time, and that the task is urgent and difficult.
It is also clear that his vision of Church is dramatically different from the two men who have gone before him, and that those who are still trying to say that Francis is in the direct line of Benedict and John Paul are becoming less credible. The simple life style, the constant calling for a poor Church, for a simple liturgy, the critique of the Curia, the challenge to the local churches to begin to take responsibility, all amounts to dramatic changes of direction from the papacy. Someone referred to his most recent encyclical as a charter for church reform.
The question that occupies me now is will the local churches rise to the challenge. Reading back over the history of the Second Vatican Council, it is clear that many new ideas and approaches were presented that would, if implemented, amount to a big change in pastoral approach, in governance, and even in interpretation of doctrine. But only a small part of it was ever put into practice because the local churches were not willing to take up the baton and move courageously into the future. John Charles McQuaid’s famous sentence when he came home from the Council that nothing had happened that would disturb the tranquillity of the faith of the people was a good illustration of the mentality that ultimately blocked change.
Everywhere I go nowadays people ask me what difference Francis will make to my future. As a 90-year-old woman said to me this morning, “you will soon be back with us again”. I am living in hope that situations like mine, and the other priests who have experienced the censure of the CDF, will not become examples of how the local church once again failed to take up the challenge.
Two recent examples give me reason to be afraid.
A couple of months ago, following the interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit magazine, in which he said that issues of censure would better be dealt with at local Church level, and where he criticised the Curia for listening to all the complaints of “unorthodoxy” that come to the Vatican, I wrote to my religious superiors asking if they would now take the authority into their own hands. And since no religious superior had ever objected to anything I had said or written at any stage throughout my life, I requested that I be returned to ministry. After a period of consultation they replied that they did not consider they had the necessary authority to do as I requested. A communication from our Superior General confirmed this, when he said that the only way forward was for me to give the CDF the statement they demanded. In other words, despite everything Francis had said, there was no change.
The second example is the Irish Episcopal response to the survey sent by the Vatican in mid-October, asking for a wide consultation with the people in preparation for the Synod on the Family next October. Apart from a few individual bishops, almost nothing has been done by the official Church in Ireland to make the survey available, and to seriously attempt to ascertain the views of the people. This is a really important moment. The Vatican is asking for the opinions of the faithful on topics that had been considered beyond debate. It is undoubtedly an initiative that has the touch of Francis all over it. And yet the Irish bishops are mostly failing to respond. It is hard to know why. Could it be fear, inertia or deliberately trying to stymie the initiative?
Pope Francis has an enormous task before him. He has repeatedly said that he thinks there should be an end to centralisation in the Church, and that the local Church should play a more active part in terms of the pastoral application of doctrine, the development of doctrine, and the governance of the Church. But how can he possibly achieve anything unless the local Church is willing to take that responsibility?
I have a deep sense of certainty that the Spirit is speaking powerfully through this man who became Pope against all the expectation and the odds. It will be a tragedy if we, in our local churches, fail to take up his challenge to be courageous and imaginative, to make difficult decisions and ‘get our hands dirty’, either through fear or inertia.
I believe that a decision to remove sanctions against the various priests who have been penalised in this country would be a significant first step in lifting the spirit and improving the morale of the Irish Church. It would signal that the era of fear and repression had ended, and that we could begin once more to breathe freely the joy of the Gospel. I also believe the Irish Church now has the authority to do it. Bishops and Religious Superiors need to take a stand.
In the words of Francis: “In our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns”.
Fr Tony Flannery is a member of the ACP Leadership Team (pro tem)

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  1. I’ve said all along, among many things…that “the bishops are the problem”, especially as they appear to be working contrary to the words and intentions of Pope Francis…and contrary to the “sensus fidelium “….although, sometimes I think…we do not have a true sensus fidelium…given the opposition to Vatican II.

  2. Shaun the Sheep says:

    (@Darlene) Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was once asked, ‘What needs to change in the Church?’ to which she replied, ‘You and me.’

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Darlene, Francis backs the retrograde attitudes of the French bishops in the following part of his Apostolic Exhortation: “Marriage now tends to be viewed as a form of mere emotional satisfaction that can be constructed in any way or modified at will. But the indispensable contribution of marriage to society transcends the feelings and momentary needs of the couple. As the French bishops have taught, it is not born “of loving sentiment, ephemeral by definition, but from the depth of the obligation assumed by the spouses who accept to enter a total communion of life.”” (I corrected the misspelling of “indispensable”as “indispensible”). In context, this is intended to discredit same sex couples. It sounds like a put-down of love by a crusty old bachelor-celibate. Are the French bishops and the Pope “expert in humanity” as they claim, or can they learn something from dialogue with their flocks?

  4. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Joe, same-sex unions are a horrid mockery of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. It’s indicative of how far we’ve fallen as a culture that such ridiculous and grotesque things can even be imagined, let alone introduced. The end of a culture is marked by the rise of homosexuality, leading to rampant moral depravity, societal sterility and death. I can still say that, but once the thought police really get going, believing this will be criminal and those who express such with be punished with the full force of the law by military police. We already have the military police.

  5. Thank you Father O’Leary…yes, the Pope needs to dialogue with the flock…I’m still hoping for his phone call…..I was referring to the Irish bishops specifically….in affirmation of Father Flannery’s suggestion that the Irish Bishops are failing to respond.
    Shaun the Sheep…My middle name is change! I take very seriously the understanding that Christ is always pruning and recreating…not just ….the folks of the Church…but, those who claim to be the authority…..otherwise…we would not have had a major council.

  6. “Francis backs the retrograde attitudes of the French Bishops” So the Pope in union with the bishops is teaching in error? That sounds like the view of someone “More Catholic than the Pope” to me.

  7. Kathleen O'Connell Sauline says:

    Dear Fr. Flannery:
    I was struck by words from the November 28 daily Gospel: “the slave does not know what the master is about”. Does this not apply to Church structure? Christ did not set up a Church of those in the know and those in the dark. He called us friends. If we are to be in this community and it is to be of Christ, all voices must be heard and honored within our processes for learning, serving and responding to the needs of the poor and marginalized.
    Thank you,

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    Darlene, one could hope that the Pope is citing the French bishops’ words as a gentle way of reminding them that what they say about love holds equally of loving same-sex couples. I still remained flummoxed by the phrase “amorous feeling, ephemeral by definition” — since I am romantic enough to believe that there are couples who live their whole lives together in a state of “being in love”, and indeed I believe that I have met many such couples.

  9. John Collins says:

    I’m with the 90 year old (wisdom) Tony .. May you be back with us soon (officially) .. But you are with us when you are “Compassionate of heart, Clear in word, Gracious in thought, Generous in Love.” (John O Donohue) .. You are all of this everyday day. (unofficially !!)

  10. Brendan Butler says:

    Fr. Gerry Cambell and Dr. Tony Hanna have claimed that my assertion that the Irish Bishops Conference had taken a minimalist aproach to the Synod Survey was ‘inaccurate’ as they , representing Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Eamon Martin , were consulting parishioners the length and breadth of the Archdiocese on the Survey. The climax of this Archdiocesan blitz was to take place at all masses in the Archdiocese last weekend. However, according to a parishioner who attended the mother Churdh of the Archdiocese, St Patrick’s cathedral , last Saturday evening there was not a mention made of the Survey in any shape or form .
    Can Fr, Gerry Cambell and Dr. Tony Hanna now explain what happened to their plan of campaign or did it ever exist

  11. Shaun the Sheep says:

    Nuala (@#9,10), JESUS said ”GO and sin no more!” People like to quote the first bit ”Neither do I condemn you…” but they forget the bit after, ”GO AND SIN NO MORE!” Of course I have to change – I have to become more like JESUS! That means, among other things, being open to His Grace and leaving sin behind.

  12. Gene Carr says:

    We should surely not have to labour the point that differences in personality and style of different occupants of the Papacy cannot imply differences in substance with regard to the doctrines of the faith. I am reminded of seeing a banner recently held by someone in St Peters square, which read, “John Paul provided the philosophy, Benedict the theology; now Francis is doing it”, or some words to that effect. One is reminded that the man most revered by Pope John XXIII was his immediate predecessor, Pius XII.

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