Decoding the Vatican

  • Francis at the two-year mark: Early achievements and persistent obstacles

    Pope Francis’ pontificate hits the two-year mark this week, and it’s a delicate moment for his program of bureaucratic house-cleaning and pastoral revitalization. The pope has set new directions and new priorities, reflecting his vision of how the Vatican should operate and how the church should evangelize. I think he’s seen real success in several areas, but he’s also encountered serious obstacles.

    Here is a brief summary:

    -- Financial reforms at the Vatican. With the recent consolidation of the Secretariat for the Economy, the pope has put in place a system of financial safeguards that is unparalleled in Vatican history. His reforms have effectively cleaned out hidden accounts and rogue budgets, and thankfully lessened Italian influence over Vatican finances in general.

    But the fierce infighting over the Economy secretary, Cardinal George Pell, along with other turf battles that have simmered in the background, only illustrate that the culture of power struggles persists inside the Vatican walls. That culture is the real problem, and I see no sign that it is disappearing.

    -- Reform of Roman Curia offices. The planned streamlining of the Vatican bureaucracy is at least halfway to the finish line, and eventually we’ll see fewer agencies and greater coordination, especially among communication agencies. That’s all to the good.

    It’s equally clear, however, that the pope has no intention of challenging the “system” in the Roman Curia, by which I mean a network of powerful administrative departments, headed by cardinals, where decision-making is linked to clerical identity and lay people function in auxiliary roles.

    The pope has called several times for an attitude of service in the Curia, but it appears to me that few if any structural changes are being contemplated that would end careerism at the Vatican.

    -- The pope as a communicator. By speaking plainly and spontaneously, without the usual Vatican filters, Pope Francis has revolutionized papal communication and, I would argue, papal teaching. It’s not just that he’s willing to converse freely with journalists and visitors; he has made this kind of direct discourse, often in interviews and off-the-cuff sermons, a primary method of instructing the faithful.

    Spontaneity, however, has brought with it a wider margin for misspeaking and misinterpretation. And the wars of interpretation over the pope’s words are being fought, rather predictably, along familiar battle lines by conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church.

    -- “Synodality” and collegiality. By challenging the Synod of Bishops to have truly open discussions about a series of pastoral problems (including but not limited to divorced and remarried Catholics), I believe the pope is trying to tackle collegiality from the ground up – beginning with how bishops relate to each other. How the bishops might share greater responsibility with the pope in church governance and pastoral care is a related question, but one that so far has barely been posed.

    Keep in mind that the pope is caught in a bit of a paradox. There’s no doubt Pope Francis wants to govern more collegially and involve the bishops in any major pastoral changes. But he’s working with a generally conservative hierarchy put in place by his two predecessors. For many of them, the very topics that need a fresh pastoral approach are considered “off limits.” In other words, the pope’s own pastoral initiatives may not survive the collegiality test today.

    -- Papal popularity. We read last week that Pope Francis’ popularity rating in the United States is 90 percent. Global media interest also remains sky high. There is much applause for the pope’s willingness to tackle social and environmental issues like climate change, and for his more recent statements that Catholic morality and theology are pointless without mercy and without direct contact with suffering humanity.

    For many, these words are a welcome change from the doctrinal litmus-test approach of recent decades. But have the pope’s words been translated into energy and engagement in local parishes around the world? Because that’s what Francis has in mind. If the net result is merely a collective “like”, then that’s not good enough for him.

    In some ways, energizing Catholics remains the biggest challenge facing Pope Francis. And in that regard, here’s another paradox he’s dealing with: The pope said at the outset that he wanted to move the church away from self-referential debates and preoccupation with its own structures, and move it toward engagement with the world. Yet in his first two years, interest in his pontificate has been largely focused on these very things: structural reforms and pastoral policy debates.

    As the church looks ahead to the next two (and more) years of Pope Francis, here’s a thought to keep in mind, a “mission statement” expressed in the pope’s own document on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”):

    I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.


  • 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.”

     

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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.

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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.

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