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First day at the office

Encouraging signs from the pope within the first few hours

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • Vatican City
  • March 15, 2013
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The festivities and celebrations to welcome Pope Francis to the See of St Peter may go on for a while. But sooner or later, the new pope will have his first day in the office.

Already there are a few indications about his style. What remains to be seen is how that will be expressed in the substance of his term as pontiff.

When he appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s to receive the welcome of the estimated 150,000 in the Square, Pope Francis was dressed simply in a white soutane, without the extra bits a pope often wears – the red jacket and stole that signifies his office. His pectoral cross was apparently the one he has worn for years, certainly not the customary gold and silver worn by bishops and cardinals.

His insistence that he travel back to his lodgings in the bus with the cardinals after his election had the Franciscan touch of one who travelled to work on public transport as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

But it was his interaction with the crowd in the Square that was immediate in its impact. He cracked a joke about Rome needing to go to the other end of the world to find a bishop, he invited everyone to pray with him for Benedict XVI and then he did something unprecedented.

Before offering his first Apostolic Blessing as Bishop of Rome, he asked for the prayerful blessing of the people of Rome. All in the square descended into silent prayer.

In his short address, he struck a decidedly Vatican Council II note in his constant references to what could only be called a significant departure from practices over the last three decades: He is firstly bishop of Rome. As that, he presides in charity over all the Churches of the Latin Rite.

This is the starting point of the approach to the Church at Vatican II where it is the pope and bishops who govern the Church, served by the Roman Curia. For some time it has been the pope and the Curia governing the Church, assisted by local bishops.

The immediate challenge for the new pope is the reform of the Curia, something promised and begun by Paul VI after Vatican II but never followed through on. Today the Curia is the most Italian and dysfunctional it has been since the Council 50 years ago.

The quality of a person’s leadership in an organization is as much measured by what they don’t do as what they do. In the last two years, three of the biggest mining companies in the world have replaced their chief executive officers for perceived failures of judgment about large projects.

Some they authorized didn’t produce the financial results expected, hardly covering the investment with the returns the projects yielded. Others these leaders let pass and the opportunities fell to competitors to exploit.

Result: The CEOs were fired.

The Church is a different organization of course. But patterns and records of leadership are open to the same scrutiny.

However prayerful and theologically literate the Emeritus Pope is seen to be, many have observed that administration was his weak point and the governance of the Vatican and indeed the whole Church was out of his control.

It’s no coincidence that the two-volume report on the Curia and Vatileaks drama was delivered to Papa Ratzinger in December and he resigned in February.

Setting the Roman house in order is the first challenge. The resurrection of episcopal participation in shaping and leading the Church rather than compliance with Roman direction will be the next item on the agenda. But the challenges won’t stop there.

As a religious and one who has held high office in the Jesuits, Pope Francis knows from experience that the vitality of the Church doesn’t have to come from diocesan structures alone. There are myriad sub-groups in the Church who bring their gifts and focus to extend the reach of the Gospel to otherwise unknown corners of the vineyard of the Lord.

What has happened over the last three decades is that only some groups have been favored by the governance of the Church, which saw an ever increasing centralization in Rome. This development led to what can only be described as the Catholic equivalent of the culture wars between “progressives” and “reactionaries”, “liberals” and “conservatives”.

This power play is destructive to the Church. Perhaps a pope with a wider view of the church, and the simplicity reflected in taking the name Francis, can put an end to these parlor games.

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