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Reviving the spirit of reform: The Francis Papacy Five Years

Christopher Lamb - The Tablet - Tue, Mar 13th 2018

It is five years since I stood in a rain-sodden St Peter’s square to watch Pope Francis greet the world. In those first moments, I remember the authentic, unscripted feel to the occasion as a new Bishop of Rome looked out with a blank, almost uncertain expression into a sea of flashing cameras and smartphones.

This Pope was not going to wave triumphantly, or present his credentials by delivering a mini-sermon or dispensing pearls of spiritual wisdom. Instead, he offered the papal equivalent of a parish priest knocking on a door and introducing himself.

“Buonasera,” he said simply, before making a joke about having being chosen from “the ends of the earth” and asking everyone in the crowd to pray with him. He immediately captured the world’s attention. There was widespread astonishment that the public face of Catholicism would for the first time be a Latin American from Argentina and a Jesuit who had chosen St Francis, the poor friar from Assisi, as his namesake.

Five years on and the frenzied reporting about the personality and lifestyle of a “revolutionary” Pope has largely stopped; a deeper understanding and appreciation of this papacy and its place within the larger context of contemporary Catholicism is coming into view.

“The Church does not have a reverse gear, it can only go forward,” Honduran Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s closest advisers, explained in Rome last week at the launch of A Pope Francis Lexicon – published in the UK as Key Words of Pope Francis.

I had asked the cardinal whether the reforms of the 81-year-old Pope could be undone by a future pontificate. The words of Cardinal Maradiaga make clear that this pontificate reflects and endorses a shift of direction that has been taking place in the Church at the grassroots for several decades.

Its foundation stone is the Second Vatican Council. This historic gathering of the world’s bishops saw the Church in Latin America find its voice, sparked the liberation theology movement in that continent and saw the development of a pilgrim Church immersed among its people. Across the globe, Catholics in the parishes knew that the 1962-65 council heralded the resurgence of a more open, ecumenical, pastoral and missionary Church. Francis is both a product and a champion of this root-and-branch reinvigoration of Catholicism. His election was part of the process of reform in the Church that inspired Vatican II, when John XXIII discerned a movement of the spirit taking place among the People of God, seeking to return to the salt and light of the Gospel, and present it anew to the world.

The post-conciliar Church has wrestled with various attempts to thwart, contain or water down this spirit of reform. This was to be expected. “If a great idea is duly to be understood,” John Henry Newman wrote in his essay on the development of Christian doctrine, “it is elicited and expanded by trial, and battles into perfection and supremacy.”

Newman compared the idea to a spring of water, adding that the stream which flows from it is clearest when it is closest to the spring. In the years since the Council, some have refused to recognise the new spring and have demanded the restoration of a mythical pre-conciliar golden era. Others, like civil servants faced with a radically-minded government minister, concede that, yes, the council was important, but it meant no more than business as usual.

Francis faces each of these mindsets as he tries to nurture a renewed Catholicism of tenderness and mercy. His vision is of a Church with the doors flung wide open, offering people inside and outside the “joy of the Gospel” rather than the cold stones of judgment. He dreams that every parish will be a “field hospital”, in which everyone is offered a chance to experience the healing power of Christ’s forgiveness as they are accompanied on a path of discernment towards God.

Doctrine, rules and canon law are not being set aside, but for this Pope they serve a missionary, pastorally-focussed Church. Laws should not become thorns that strangle the seed, as in the parable of the sower.

However, deep reforms take time. Overhauling an ancient and unwieldy Roman Curia is a painfully slow process; the Pope has likened it to cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush. Scandals have not gone away. The most serious of them – clerical sexual abuse – has been poorly handled.

Inside the Church, there is a new freedom to discuss questions that were previously deemed too risky to mention publicly. The role of women is being looked at seriously, and a commission to look at the question of female deacons has been established. The conversation on gay Catholics has been transformed by the five most famous words of this papacy: “Who am I to judge?”

More troubling for Francis is the apathy – and in some cases outright opposition – of some bishops to his agenda. The opening up of discussion has allowed us to see the angry hostility to Francis. Some, particularly in Italy, dislike his openness to migrants and refugees. Many wealthy Catholic donors in the United States are discomfited by his critique of capitalism. Others say this Pope is allowing the spread of heresy, by opening a pathway that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion in some circumstances.

What the resistance to Francis demonstrates is that his reforms are making an impact. The Pope’s post-synod document on family life, Amoris Laetitia, places personal conscience, discernment and accompaniment at the heart of the big pastoral questions. This goes far beyond the question of who can and cannot receive communion. What it represents, as Cardinal Walter Kasper writes in a new book on Amoris Laetitia, released this week, is not “new doctrine” but a “creative renewal of tradition” in keeping with Vatican II and previous pontificates.

Five areas might be held up as keys to understanding Francis.

The first is his reform of the papacy. Some have described Francis’ approach to leadership as a “revolution of normalcy”. The 266th successor to St Peter has made the decision to live simply in the Casa Santa Marta guesthouse, to be driven in an unassuming Ford and to retain close connections with a wide range of people outside the traditional Vatican bureaucracy. This is normal, human, Christian behaviour. It goes deeper than just style. It has brought an end to the papacy as a monarchy, replacing it with the model of servant leadership.

Building on this focus on simplicity is Francis’ “pastoral populism”, seen when he baptises a disabled child on the side of a street or marries a couple on board his aeroplane. The “People’s Pope” practices what he preaches about bishops having the “smell of the sheep” and remaining close to their flocks .

The influence of Juan Peron, the dominant force in post-war Argentine politics, is significant. “Peronism” defied left or right categories, believed in a generous welfare state, encouraged quasi-national religious piety and centralised power around its leader. Some have dubbed Francis, who values direct contact with people and likes to be in control of the big decisions, “Papa Peron”.

While instinctively a forthright leader, the Pope has committed himself to a cautious decentralisation of the Church, and it is here that the lasting effects of this pontificate may be felt long after he has left office. Under Francis, power has been pushed out to the coal face, draining power from once dominant Vatican offices. It will be hard for this to be reclaimed in the future.

The Pope has given bishops’ conferences greater control over translations of the liturgy, and he insists that “not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium”. With Francis in charge, bishops no longer need to fear the arrival of a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Pope’s focus is on the “peripheries”. He visits remote, conflict-ridden parts of the world, delights in giving red hats to bishops from countries who have never had a cardinal before, and happily gives the homeless private tours of the Sistine Chapel. His greatest fear is that the Church might sink into the sickness of becoming self-referential.

Along with pushing power outwards, this Pope has reinvigorated ecumenical collaboration. An Argentinian unencumbered by Europe’s legacy of religious wars, he calls for Christians to act as if they are already united. One of the achievements of the first Jesuit Pope may be to imbue the papal magisterium with the practice for which St Ignatius, the Society of Jesus’ founder, is renowned: discernment.

This, the third key to the Francis papacy, explains why he re-booted the Synod of Bishops, ensuring that the discussions during its gatherings on the family in 2014 and 2015 were open and frank. A synod this October will focus on young people while another in 2019 will concentrate on the Amazon.

Over the centuries, the big questions have increasingly come to be settled at the top. Francis instead calls for a synodal Church in which bishops and the faithful collectively read the signs of the times. He is the guarantor of unity and has the final say. But he believes in a Church that “walks together” – priests and laity – to strengthen its mission.

Discernment is closely linked to conversion, which starts with a recognition of our “thirst” for God, along with a willingness to face up to failings, contradictions and weaknesses. For Francis, everyone, including himself, is a work in progress, in need of repentance and reform in the spirit.

In concrete terms, his reforms at the centre will result in a slimmed-down Roman Curia that focuses on serving local churches. Rome will remain important, but as a co-ordinating hub, helping to share ideas and convening major gatherings that address global problems. Under Francis, the Vatican has hosted major conferences on human trafficking, inter-faith dialogue and combatting poverty. A new apostolic constitution for the Curia is being worked on. It has proved hugely difficult to bring transparency to the Holy See’s finances. The Vatican’s scandal-plagued bank, the IOR, has been cleaned up and its former director is to stand trial for embezzling and laundering millions of dollars. A robust system of oversight is being implemented by Swiss lawyer René Brülhart.

But there is still no proper financial reporting, the first independent auditor has been dismissed and Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s treasurer, is back home in Australia fighting historic sex abuse offences. Real, radical reform is still some way away. There is still a long way to go.

The fifth feature of this papacy might be described as global statesmanship. With Brexit, with the United States pursuing an “America first” strategy and with nationalist, insular political movements becoming stronger, the Latin American Pope has become a standard bearer for the compassionate, internationalist post-war political consensus.

From Myanmar to the Central African Republic, from Colombia to Cuba, Francis’ travels have concentrated on mediation and peace building, however hopeless the situation. He has pricked the conscience of the world on refugees and on victims of human trafficking, and in each case has sought to give a voice to the voiceless. Inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Islam, is at the top of his agenda, while his encyclical Laudato Si’ boldly puts the Church at the forefront of battling environmental degradation and its impact on poor communities. 

His foreign policy, according to the Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, is rooted in a “diplomacy of mercy” that “never loses hope”. Fr Spadaro, an adviser to Francis and director of La Civiltà Cattolica, says that includes an “incomplete” or “open” diplomacy. This has guided the Vatican’s approach to negotiations with China; the Holy See is reportedly on the verge of signing a deal with Beijing that will give the Communist Party a say in the appointment of bishops. The deal is not perfect, but it is a start. For Francis, the discernment process is as important as the final outcome.

The Pope’s election on 13 March 2013 marked a decisive moment in the contemporary Church, when the stream released by the Second Vatican Council started to become a river.

While history shows that reform rarely takes place without a struggle, or in a straight line, this papacy has set the future trajectory for the Church with fresh clarity and sense of purpose. The journey is incomplete, but it has well and truly begun.

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