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Pope's words of warning resonate in Asia

We can all learn from his advice to new cardinals

<p>Pope Francis with cardinals (file picture: AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)</p>

Pope Francis with cardinals (file picture: AFP Photo/Filippo Monteforte)

  • Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok
  • International
  • January 14, 2014
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Almost immediately after announcing his appointment of 19 new cardinals, it has been revealed that Pope Francis has also written them a letter of warning.

“The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” he wrote. “It is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”

Earlier consistories – the Vatican City event where new cardinals are formally inducted – have often been accompanied by a whirl of social functions and dinners. But the pope’s letter seems to have nipped that sharply in the bud.

“I ask you, please, to receive this designation with a simple and humble heart,” it said. “And, while you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”

The letter is especially significant for the challenge it offers the Church in Asia where hierarchies are sometimes entrenched parts of local culture. With those hierarchies come an attitude entirely at odds with the sort of Church proposed at the Second Vatican Council; a Church that the present pope wants restored.

Catholicism is enriched when cultures other than those of Europe throw fresh light on the person and message of Jesus and the meaning and celebration of the sacraments.

But sometimes the Church reflects aspects of the local culture that are actually an obstacle to receiving the Gospel and growing in authentic faith. Ingrained attitudes to status and the operations of those in leadership positions can become counter-signs to the life and mode of service suggested by Jesus.

In the letter, which he begins with the simple salutation “Dear Brother” (no titles or formality), the pope continues with his relentless focus on the sort of Church he wants to see flourish; a place where the poor have the only place of privilege and the role of officials in the Church is as servants.

Referring to the appointment as a “designation” rather than an elevation, as is usually done, makes more than a nominal difference. This is the pope who advised friends not to come for his installation as Bishop of Rome and instead give the price of the travel as a gift to the poor. Now he is telling the new cardinals that what they’re taking on is a service; work that will be demanding and at times burdensome.

The reality is that being a cardinal adds nothing more than ordination as bishop achieved. All that being a cardinal means is that the person so designated joins the group who are the elders of the Church of Rome. Their main responsibility is the election of the leader of the Church of Rome.

But then comes reality. The designation, which used to be seen by many as an elevation, brings with it a status that sets them distinctly apart. And some of them in recent years have emphasized just how apart they are by the clothes they wear and the importance they think they should enjoy.

The most obvious, and ludicrous, expression of this aspect of some cardinals’ view of themselves became apparent in their wearing of the Cappa Magna, a form of dress to signify office that was specifically suppressed by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s, only to reappear in the last decade.

It was rightly described by many as the epitome of “dress up Catholicism,” now so condemned in word and deed by Pope Francis. Despite the fashion magazine Esquire choosing him as the best dressed man of 2013, Pope Francis has deliberately ‘dressed down.’

But that is the thin edge of a very large wedge that the pope is looking to drive into the world’s clergy, whom he sees as here for service to people rather than preening for the sake of seeming superior.

And in that, he is doing no more than echoing the teaching of Vatican II, which designated the Church to be the People of God, not an institution that comprises a paid-up work force of clerics and religious who were imagined to be a higher form of Catholicism, better Catholics or even closer to God.

As Vatican II underlined, clerics and religious are there purely to support the baptized who are the front line troops for the mission of the Church.

The message of Pope Francis is simple but also hard to live: learning the hard lessons of how we can share the mission of Jesus requires patience, humility and a readiness for self-sacrificing service.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com

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