Pope Francis and the ‘Third Church’

As the one who heralded it, and nurtured its beginnings, he is always going to be remembered with gratitude

Myron J. Pereira

Updated: March 13, 2023 11:19 AM GMT

This handout photo taken on March 10, 2023 by The Vatican Media shows Pope Francis greeting Seyyed Abul Hassan Nawab (Seyyed Abolhasan Navvab), the Dean of Iran's University of Religions and Denominations, upon his arrival for their meeting at the Vatican. (Photo by Handout / VATICAN MEDIA / AFP) 

Two events in recent times graphically reveal the changes taking place in the Church today. The first is the death of Pope Benedict XVI at the end of last year. The second event falls on March 13, marking 10 years of Pope Francis' pontificate.

Many refer to Francis' time as pope as the second spring in the Church, after the dreary winter of the two previous incumbents, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The previous popes were keen on safeguarding certain aspects of the Church that began five centuries ago in the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Tridentine Church

In the decades after the Council of Trent, energetic efforts were made to rid the Church of institutional chaos and corruption.

It was widely admitted that the doctrinal ignorance of the clergy was a contributing factor to this, and so the seminary system came into play, largely organized and conducted by the Jesuits.

Soon a seminary in every diocese became the aspiration of every bishop, and a degree in canon law became a must for clerics who aspired to positions of authority. Four hundred years later, this is still largely true.

The Tridentine age also ushered in a more centralized process of the appointments of bishops, now closely monitored by Rome. Gone were the times when a bishop was chosen by popular acclaim.

These two aspects of Church life — doctrine and the episcopate — were tightly controlled during the following centuries. An increasingly centralized papacy even promoted itself as infallible during the first Vatican Council (1869).

History shows us the Church for what it really was: a largely European institution, monarchical and imperialistic. Rome was distrustful of all things 'modern,' and quick to condemn and reject. In fact, we had a totalitarian Church.

A Changing World

But the world was changing rapidly, and unevenly, and the clash of trends and ideologies made the Roman Church increasingly defensive.

What were some of these changes? The scientific criticism of the Bible. Growing industrial economies everywhere, in the grip of both capitalism and socialism. Resurgent nationalism in several countries. Changes in life>

The Council (1962-65) introduced many far-reaching changes, not just in the liturgy and church structure, but especially in a change of attitude to others — to the Jews, to the Protestants, and the Orthodox (ecumenism), to the world religions (interfaith dialogue), and to the world as a whole.

Resistance to the Council

Not everyone was comfortable with this, however. Several in the hierarchy felt that the Council had surrendered to modernism. Their resistance was quiet but tenacious.

The greatest antagonism however came from the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. He challenged the Council, seceded from its reforms, and set up the Society of St. Pius X, naming it after a pope who feared modernity, tried his best to suppress it, and even snooped on his own cardinals.

Lefebvre was the most radical, but there were others too who resented and rejected what Karl Rahner called the coming of the world Church.

For if the First Church was that of the early Great Councils (325-451), and was located in the eastern Mediterranean; and the Second Church was that of European expansion, inspired by Francis Xavier (1540) and lasting until the Second World War;  the Third Church — or the World Church (in Rahner's words) begins with Vatican II.

It marks the coming of age of the faith with deep roots in the cultures of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The late Pope Benedict XVI must be seen in this light. For him, however, Europe was the faith, and the faith was Europe, as Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc would say.

Benedict's idea of the Church was that of a little flock, kept unsullied by the relativism of the modern world, and the contamination of strange cultures.

He truly believed in and adhered to a Christendom that Europe had once espoused and glorified, but had now jettisoned forever.

Benedict did not wish to see the Church mutating into something else together, even as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. There is no new name for this yet, but we may call it the third Church.

Pope Francis was different

But Francis, that man from a far country was different. I chose the name 'Francis', he once explained, because St. Francis was a man of poverty, a man of peace, and a man with a care for creation.

He has steadily dismantled the papal court and made of the papacy what it was always meant to be — a pastoral service. And in doing so, Francis has fundamentally changed the way in which we see the Church.

Francis tells us that the very first words of the Gospel are about the compassion and mercy of God, not about dogmas, rules, or interdicts. Certainly not about canon law!

Therefore our response must be always to show compassion to all our brothers and sisters, especially to the poor, the marginalized, refugees, the homeless, and the sick.

And Francis has practiced this publicly, regularly, unapologetically. The Church, in one of his famous sayings, is a hospital on the battlefield.

He has given us a new perspective on faith: not orthodoxy, correct belief; but orthopraxis, acting rightly. That's what God wants of us.

Many other things can be said about Francis, but we will say just two because these two innovations of his will leave their impact on the Church long after he has gone.


The first is synodality.  This is not so much an event or a slogan as a >

All these years, we have been used to a hierarchical church, where bishops ruled and the laity obeyed.

A synodal church is the opposite: it is built on the participation of all — young, old; men and women; priests, religious and laity; the educated and the ordinary — as all walk towards (the original meaning of 'syn-odos') their mission, revealed in communion with the Spirit of Jesus.

It's a new way of functioning, something which neither obedient Catholics nor Protestants are used to. And it is based on discernment, or openness to the Spirit, which now becomes the new way of proceeding for the Church.

This is Pope Francis's gift to the Church. Will it be cherished? Will it be remembered? Will it be used?

Care for Creation

And the second: Pope Francis has placed the care for creation at the center of his mission.

With Laudato Si', Francis compiled the compendium of church teaching on ecology and explicitly linked it with the socio-economic turmoil faced by a world of climate change and rapid deterioration of ecosystems.

His message has transcended the Catholic Church, joined faith and science, reimagined humanity's relationship with the rest of nature, and positioned him as a world leader on the many environmental challenges facing the globe.

As the climate activist Bill McKibben wrote recently:  Laudato Si' remains the most important document of the millennium on the climate crisis, and indeed among the best critiques ever issued on capitalism, consumerism, and our strained and unequal modernity.

This brings me to my final point.

The 'Third Church'

The Third Church is the new shape of the Church for the present millennium, a Christian community that has outgrown its historical moorings in Europe and the Mediterranean, and is busy finding its roots in South America, Africa, and Asia.

The typical Catholic now is no longer a white man. She is more likely to be a colored woman, not affluent, but carrying herself with confidence, outspoken wherever the need arises, and with a vision for herself and those whom she holds dear.

She probably lives in a country where Catholics hold little economic or social power, and may even be the victims of persecution and discrimination. Catholic communities of the Third Church may not always be led by a celibate clergy but will be guided by both men and women, most of whom are married. Their bonds with those of other faiths are warm and enriching.

Indeed, it is an entirely new experience of faith — not dogmatic, not exclusivist, not cluttered with norms and rituals, but springing from life in all its depth and complexity.

This is then what discipleship means. This is what synodality is in practice. And the one who heralded it, and who nurtured its beginnings, is always remembered with gratitude.

He is Pope Francis, the man from a far country.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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