Pope Francis must follow fervour with reform

The papal sermon to the faithful on New Year’s Day, delivered from high above Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, is usually an unremarkable and briefly reported spectacle. It always features an utterly predictable appeal for world peace. That’s the tradition, and Pope Francis stuck to it on Wednesday, with a plea for an end to violence.

Yet the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio also injected into proceedings that extraordinary new energy and realism that have become the hallmark of his nine months as leader of the Catholic Church, which have already made him such a global phenomenon, and Time magazine’s person of the year for 2013.

“We belong to the same human family,” he told the crowds, moving beyond the usual pious platitudes to make a simple, direct and down-to-earth demand not just of his own global flock of 1.1 billion, but to everyone else as well. “We share a common destiny,” he insisted.

And the world, unlike in previous years, sat up and listened, as it has been doing with a mixture of rapt attention and delight since that evening back in March last year when a little known Argentine Jesuit surprised us all by emerging from the Sistine Chapel as the successor to Benedict XVI. He immediately signalled a revolution by naming himself after the 12th-century saint who turned his back on his wealthy upbringing and lived with the poor. This new Pope clearly wanted to shake up the Church. And we’ve all been shaking since.

The “Francis effect” isn’t just about making headlines, though, or even saving Catholics from being forced to defend the indefensible in our Church. It is pushing up mass attendance, even in ultra-sceptical Western Europe, and attendance at confession. It is also transforming the reputation of the Catholic Church, for so long beset by appalling scandals of corrupt cardinals and paedophile priests. And it has even, as reported this week, increased threefold the sales of papal souvenirs that range from time-honoured holy pictures and rosary beads to Francis-branded onesies, boxer shorts and thongs.

A big part of all of this is that in Francis, the Catholic Church has finally found someone who can communicate directly in word and deed with people, be they religious or not, as he showed on New Year’s Day. He has abandoned the godly abstractions so favoured by pontiffs, prelates and priests.

Note that, when on the plane back from a triumphant visit to Brazil in July (three million had joined him in prayer on Copacabana beach), he was challenged on Catholicism’s condemnation of homosexuality, arguably the Church’s greatest “sin” in secular eyes. Francis replied with a question. “If a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge him?” He might have added: “as has every one of my predecessors for centuries”.

Then there have been his remarks on the role of women. John Paul II in 1994 decreed that women’s ordination would not only never happen, but that Catholics shouldn’t even speak about it. “The challenge today,” Pope Francis said in an interview with La Civiltà Cattolica in September, “is to think about the specific place of women in those places where the authority of the church is exercised”.

One of his closest advisers, Cardinal ”scar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who heads the eight-man panel (and yes, they are all men) tasked with helping Francis reform the discredited Vatican bureaucracy, has made plain that the intention is to promote many more women to senior roles. It isn’t, of course, women’s ordination – but Rome isn’t rebuilt in a day.

There have also been powerful symbolic gestures. Francis declined to move into the papal apartments and prefers instead to live in a single room in the hostel where he was staying to take part in the election of a new pope. When he landed in Brazil, he left the airport not in a motorcade of fancy limos, but squeezed into the back of a Fiat Punto. Catholicism under his leadership, he has insisted repeatedly, with an echo of Saint Francis, is to be a “poor Church for the poor”.

Such words carry moral force not simply because he is at the very top of one of the most hierarchical structures in the modern world, but also because he lives them out every day before our eyes. His predecessor, Benedict, was overly fond of dressing up and elaborate, wordy ceremonies. Francis cut all of that out from the very start, refusing to wear the scarlet ermine cape that is the traditional garb of new popes when they appear to cries of Habemus papam.

It is not because he dislikes tradition per se, but because he can see how much it can get in the way of what really matters. “The ministers of the gospel,” he said in that same interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, “must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.”

What Francis has undoubtedly achieved in nine months, then, is to change the standard, damning storyline about his Church that treated it as, at best, a relic and an irrelevance, and, at worst, as an impediment to human progress. But changing the storyline is not the same thing as changing the story.

For all Francis’s fine words, Catholic teaching remains as hard-line and excluding as it ever was if you are gay, divorced or a woman. Two thousand years of history teaches that the Vatican will never willingly reform itself. It has to be led.

So the time is surely approaching when Francis must turn his attention to setting down in Church law the new, inclusive, gospel-based approach he is preaching. There will be plenty of ultra-conservatives in the Vatican and elsewhere right now calculating how long a 77-year-old, with part of one lung missing, will endure before the arrival of another new broom hopefully more to their liking. So there is no time to waste.

Francis himself has acknowledged the danger of delay, but argues that “the structural and organisational reforms are secondary – that is, they must come afterwards. The first reform must be the attitude.” But that hasn’t stopped him getting on already with overhauling the Vatican curia and its dodgy bank; or with tackling head-on the scandal of priests who abuse children; or with sending out a questionnaire (admittedly in the bizarre language of Church bureaucracy) to canvas Catholics’ views on questions of doctrine. So if he can act swiftly and decisively in some fields, why not others?

If Francis’s words are studied closely, behind the appealingly human bon mots there potentially lurks something else. “Abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he remarked in September in an extended interview, “I have not spoken much about these things. The teaching of the Church… is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time… We have to find a new balance.”

Does a “new balance” mean reform, or just sweeping these issues under the carpet and instructing priests not to punish Catholics who step out of line? That is, effectively, what Francis has done so far. In November, in the first papal document he has penned, Evangelii Gaudium, he wrote that “the eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak”.

A fine sentiment, of course, and a definite improvement from being turned away at the altar rails because you’ve remarried, but again it is several aisles short of a pledge to genuine reform of doctrine. And that raises another worry.

For 35 years, popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made sure that the only people who ever got to be cardinals – and thus papal electors – were those sharing their essentially conservative disposition. So how did a radical like Jorge Mario Bergoglio ever get chosen, first as a cardinal and then as Pope? Could it be that those doing the picking know something about him that we don’t?

The cynic might suggest this all adds up to him not really being that different from what has gone before. He is simply giving the old story a new cover. But Catholic teaching also holds that present with those cardinals who voted him in is the Holy Spirit. I have to confess to having always suspected this was just another wordy formula that meant very little in the realpolitik of ecclesiastical advancement.

But then along came Pope Francis, upsetting every one of the Church’s sacred applecarts, just as Jesus once did. He has certainly restored my faith in my Church – up to a point. Time person of the year 2013 is fine as far as it goes, but in 2014 he must be Catholicism’s reformer of the year.

Peter Stanford is a former editor of The Catholic Herald.

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