Decoding the Vatican

  • A papal call for mercy, and a warning against a 'closed caste' church

    Pope Francis today delivered an impassioned defense of what has become a leitmotif of his pontificate – the church of mercy that reaches out to the marginalized vs. the church of rules that closes itself into a “closed caste.”

    The pope’s homily was addressed to a group of new cardinals gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. But one had the impression that it was also aimed at in-house critics who have questioned some of Francis’ statements and who have warned against an over-emphasis on mercy at the expense of doctrinal truth.

    The pope said the Gospel account of Jesus’ curing of the leper was, in a sense, a model for how the church must operate with compassion to “reintegrate the marginalized” – including fallen-away Catholics – even when it provokes criticism.

    “Jesus does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized by any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity,” the pope said.

    The pope said the modern church, too, stands at a crossroads of two ways of thinking: “We can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” The thinking of the “doctors of law,” he said, would remove danger by casting out the sick or sinful person. But God’s way is to show mercy and accept this person, turning condemnation into salvation.

    That has always been the church’s way, too, he said. This means the church must “leave her four walls behind” and not only welcome people who knock at its doors, but also seek out those on the “outskirts” of life, including the sick, the suffering and the spiritually alienated. It also means “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world,” he said.

    The pope told the cardinals: “Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honor!”

    He asked them to help make sure the modern church turns to the outcast, resisting the temptation to become “a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it.”

    They should see Jesus, he said, in everyone who is excluded – the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the persecuted, and even in “those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith.”

    “Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” he said at the close of his remarks.

    The homily was a capsule version of the vision that inspires so many of Pope Francis’ actions to date, including his consideration of new policies for divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, or his efforts to make the Vatican bureaucracy more responsive to real-world problems.

    With most of the world’s cardinals in attendance, the pope made it clear that this vision of the church’s mission is not something he invented, but is rooted in the words and actions of Christ.

     

  • Pope Francis has found cardinals who share his vision of the church

    Most of the 20 new cardinals created today by Pope Francis never thought they’d be wearing the cardinal’s red hat. Most of them never wanted to be a cardinal.

    And that, perhaps, is the most important defining quality of the pope’s choices, as he shifts the College of Cardinals away from careerists and toward pastors who, as true shepherds, “live with the smell of the sheep.”

    Sure, geography is part of the pope’s plan. By choosing cardinals from such far-flung places as Tonga, Myanmar and Cape Verde, he is expanding the global mix in an institution that has been dominated for centuries by Europe.

    The pope is also choosing prelates from small dioceses, places that have never had a cardinal before. I think this is a deliberate move to end the perception that cardinals should be the most powerful church leaders from the most populous and “important” archdioceses.

    But what’s really striking about the new cardinals is that they seem to embody Pope Francis’ vision of the church as a merciful mother, a promoter of justice and a bearer of good news, directly involved in the lives of those who suffer. By most accounts, the pope’s choices are bishops who are close to their people.

    Uruguayan Archbishop Daniel Sturla Berhouet, for example, was doing pastoral work in the slums of Montevideo when he learned the pope had made him a cardinal. Reaching young people in the poorer barrios of the city, he said, is his top priority.

    Panamanian Bishop Jose Lacunza Maestrojuan of David, another of Francis’ choices, is a social activist who has helped mediate disputes over mining concessions on indigenous reserves. He has described his primary mission as “to work among the poor, with the poorest, that is, the indigenous people.”

    In Mexico, Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia said the example of Pope Francis has led him and other bishops to speak more forcefully on issues like drug violence and immigration.

    The first-ever cardinal from Cape Verde, Arlindo Gomes Furtad, has said the church needs to be a teacher with the heart of a mother, reaching out to broken families with “practical incentives and welcoming gestures.”

    In Italy, the pope skipped over larger dioceses like Turin and Venice when he named new cardinals. Instead, he chose Archbishop Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona, known for his pastoral energy, human warmth and lack of pretension, and Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, who has worked closely with the immigrant community in Italy.

    In selecting cardinals, it seems clear that Pope Francis has found a way to identify people who can keep their sense of self-importance in check. Lest there be any doubt, he wrote to the new cardinals and told them, “Keeping oneself humble in service is not easy if one views the cardinalate as an award, like the culmination of a career, a dignity of power or of superior distinction.”

    In his homily at today's consistory, the pope cautioned that church leaders are sometimes tempted by pride and self-centeredness, and by irritability with their people and their colleagues, or, even worse, by pent-up anger. The antidote, he said, is found in St. Paul’s words, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated.”

    The pope added something that no doubt resonated with the new batch of cardinals, on the link between love and justice: “Those called to the service of governance in the Church need to have a strong sense of justice, so that any form of injustice becomes unacceptable, even those which might bring gain to himself or to the Church.”

     

  • Don't look for laity in top Roman Curia positions under reform plans

    “Downsizing expectations.”

    That’s the title I’d give Father Federico Lombardi’s briefing today on the College of Cardinals’ meeting to discuss Roman Curia reform.

    For one thing, the cardinals were told it could take years to complete the reforms. An explicit comparison was made to Pope John Paul II’s modifications to the Roman Curia, which took 10 years to design and implement, with multiple stages of consultation and approval.

    I’m not sure Pope Francis has 10 years to dedicate to this project.

    The cardinals were also offered a vague outline of a proposal to combine six or seven pontifical councils into two new congregations, which are more important Curial agencies. The hypothesis, which has been floating around a while, would foresee a Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and a Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace.

    The latter congregation, Father Lombardi said, may have a special sector for environmental issues and “human ecology,” which are the focus of an encyclical that Pope Francis is expected to publish this year.

    But the Vatican spokesman illustrated the limits of change when he said it was “unthinkable” for any Vatican congregation – even one for laity – to be headed by a lay person. Because of the level of responsibility involved, that position will no doubt continue to be filled by a cardinal, he said.

    That tells me that whatever the pope’s advisors have in mind, Curia reform is not going to touch the fundamental clerical framework of decision-making in the Vatican.

    Nor is there serious discussion of adding a “moderator” office to the Roman Curia, a position responsible for coordinating the various activities of the Vatican’s many agencies. The role of moderator will probably be implicit in the role of the Secretariat of State, which would be no change at all.

    In this morning’s discussions, it appears that even relatively modest proposals like rolling some councils into congregations met with objections. Some said congregations had a traditional function in church governance, while councils did not.

    There were different points of view, as well, on whether term limits for Curia officials made sense. Some favored distinct terms, and others thought experience sometimes argued for open-ended terms.

    The cardinals only began to explore the concepts of collegiality and synodality, which the pope wants to strengthen in the way the Roman Curia functions. Those issues probably offer material for many years of further discussion.

    It seems to me that it may take some forceful leadership moves by Pope Francis to advance this reform movement beyond the “endless study” stage.

     

RSS Feed

John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

Read more about John 

Media

John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

See what's happening now!