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Actions will speak louder than gestures

How Pope Francis may tackle the core issues for the Church

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • April 16, 2013
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The early days and weeks of the new Pope’s work as Bishop of Rome have been full of symbolic gestures and clear messages about the approach he takes to following Jesus.

But it will be the actions of this pontificate that will have the lasting effect. That effect will be felt in the appointments he makes and the way he handles the list of outstanding issues that confront him, which include the nature of ministry, the role of women, the sex abuse scandal, the male dominated governance of the Church at most levels in most places, the stalling on ecumenism, the failure of the Church in dealing internally with natural rights and due process, and how Catholics are to share the Good News in the sometimes secular and always religiously pluralistic contexts.

From what we know of his views and practice as a Jesuit priest and bishop in Argentina, here are five things I wouldn’t be surprised to see. These are of course pure, if also informed, hunches. But I wouldn’t think it extraordinary for the following to occur:

It would appear from the accounts of his personality offered by those who know him well that when Pope Francis makes up his mind about something, nothing will deflect him. The reform of the Curia, making it serve rather than dominate local churches, rendering its processes coordinated but also transparent, having other than predominantly Italian voices heard in it, are all things that have been often repeated as necessary changes.

They have wide support among bishops and cardinals and as a speaker at meetings prior to the conclave, Pope Francis was most outspoken about the need for Curia reform. His concerns will only be intensified when he absorbs whatever is in the 300-page report on the Curia delivered by the three elderly cardinals in December that was said to have triggered Benedict XVI’s retirement. Reform of the Curia will be his major legacy.

Plainly from the evidence of his actions and words so far, he will focus on dark places and dark times – where he can see the suffering Christ – as the places where the Spirit can grow if allowed. Plainly Pope Francis is with St Paul in believing that the only boast of Christians is in the Cross of Jesus Christ and the Good News is to be preached to the poor.

I think this will issue in a simpler account of Catholic identity, free of the elaborate philosophical and theological frameworks, the negative warnings and forbidding utterances that have been so substantial a feature of Catholicism since the Vatican Council.

There will be a distinct change in the tone and content of messages from Rome. Expect Francis to counter the image of the Catholic Church as sex-obsessed rather than as the servant body of Christ. Since so far he has used gestures rather than pronouncements to make points, this will take the form of friendly encounters with some who have been subject to admonitions and condemnations in the past.

He will be acutely sensitive to the movement of the Spirit in the Church. There are many issues in need of consideration, decision and action in the Church right now – the place of women, the collapse of confidence among Catholics in the moral teaching of the Vatican, the obvious incapacity of the Church’s present ministerial structures to adequately provide sacramental ministry, the gross over-centralization of Church governance in the Vatican Curia as an extension of the Pope’s supreme authority.

In this regard, and while he shows no sign of being a theological “liberal,” expect him to initiate discussion, perhaps even convene a major gathering of Church leadership, to address the central challenge facing the Church: the nature and structure of ministry, including sacramental ministry.

Rather than an outright repudiation of current procedures and practices, though, he will commence a process that will create a differently shaped Church over the next decade.

The focus and mood – in word and deed – of Pope Francis’s approach is already evidently more evangelical and direct than the moral and pedagogical focus of the last two pontificates. He is plainly traditional, even devotional, in the expression of his Catholic faith.

He will use these actions and events rather than encyclicals on moral issues or fine theological points. He will know that few are listening to what comes from the Vatican and rather than issue any motu proprio, he will rely upon the local churches to find their own ways to live the Gospel.

Related to that, I expect there will be a reduction in the influence of the spy network, the so-called “Temple Police” throughout the Church that has harassed thinkers and authors almost without restraint for some decades.

He will see himself as part of something much larger to which he has a contribution to make, but only a contribution and for a particular length of time.

At 76, he gave himself no chance of being elected pope, and I think that unless death suddenly takes him, he will follow his predecessor’s example and follow the usual Jesuit practice where all but the Superior in the Order – the Superior General whose length of term is indefinite – retire from an appointment after six years in the job. That will allow him to do what he wants to do and, at 82, I’d consider retiring too.

But overall, one thing is certain: if things don’t change it will be because as Francis, Jorge Maria Bergoglio hasn’t tried his hardest to change them.

Fr Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and is based in Bangkok

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