Pope Francis greets disabled children in Assisi
It’s been a busy week at the Vatican: a date set for the canonization of two popes, a stunning new papal interview, a meeting of the pope’s “Group of 8” cardinal advisors and an important visit by the pope to the birthplace of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
When it comes to the future direction of the church and the reforms planned by Pope Francis, do we know anything more today than we did a week ago?
Yes, we do.
Despite Vatican cautions about expecting too much too soon from the Group of 8, we know after their first three-day meeting in Rome that they’re focusing on some key areas of reform:
-- The Roman Curia is in for an overhaul, not a tune-up. The cardinals and the pope want a rewriting of “Pastor Bonus,” the document that regulates the Vatican bureaucracy. The emphasis will be on the Curia’s identity as a network of service instead of a central church authority. The new constitution will likely modify the role of the secretary of state, tying this office more closely to papal ministry and creating a new “moderator of the Curia” to coordinate activities of other Vatican agencies.
-- The Synod of Bishops will likely be revamped, too. It appears Francis wants to use the periodic synods at the Vatican as a way to implement what he’s called greater collegiality and “synodality,” implying a sharing of decision-making authority. Sometime in coming days, we should be learning how the new assemblies will work, as well as the theme for the next synod (which the pope has hinted will focus on the human being and the family in the light of the Gospel.)
-- The role of the laity in the governing of the church is going to be a major topic of thought and discussion going forward in these meetings. The cardinals made a point of this, reflecting the concerns of their own faithful, and Pope Francis seems receptive. I expect the pope will bring lay people to decision-making positions in the Vatican for the first time – which also means bringing women to these positions for the first time. (Up to now, the Vatican has insisted that the power to make legally binding decisions is tied to holy orders.)
-- The cardinals raised some issues related to reform of Vatican financial institutions, but are awaiting the recommendations of specific advisory commissions appointed by the pope. After fresh accusations of financial impropriety this week regarding APSA, the Vatican’s investment agency, that work acquired new urgency. Meanwhile, this week saw publication of the Vatican bank's first annual report, considered a milestone on the path toward great transparency.
We now have a clearer idea of the timeline in the reform process, too. The Group of 8 scheduled additional meetings for December and February, but the Vatican emphasized that its work was expected to be completed “quickly.” I think that by the one-year mark of Francis’ election, the pope wants to have some key changes in place. All of this shows the wisdom of appointing a panel of eight cardinals instead of a larger and more unwieldy consultative group.
Pope Francis’ latest newspaper interview, a conversation with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, also shed more light on the pope’s vision of the church’s mission and his own ministry. His critique of the “Vatican-centric” view of the Roman Curia and his characterization of papal courtiers as a “leprosy” no doubt sent more shudders through the ranks of Vatican bureaucrats.
This interview strengthened expectations that Francis will share governing authority, and that he will emphasize dialogue as the dominant means of evangelization. One of his most telling comments was that “very little was done” to implement the Second Vatican Council’s call for engagement with modern culture. Francis sees himself as the pope who will finally run with Vatican II, in a way his predecessors have not.
Today’s visit to Assisi spotlighted Francis’ wider message to the church, warning against a “spirit of the world” that compromises Christian witness. Standing in the room where St. Francis stripped off his rich clothes and dedicated his life to poverty, the pope said, “This is a good occasion to invite the church to strip itself of worldliness.”
“There is a danger that threatens everyone in the church, all of us. The danger of worldliness. It leads us to vanity, arrogance and pride,” he said.
Meeting with a group of poor people served by Catholic charities, the pope said that many of them had been “stripped by this savage world, which doesn't provide work, which doesn't help, to which it makes no difference that children die of hunger.”
Here, too, we caught a glimpse of things to come. Francis is going to have a lot to say about economic justice, and I don’t think it will simply be a rehash of previous papal encyclicals. I expect we’re going to see gestures, decisions and words that will challenge economic systems and shake individual consciences.
This momentous week began with the decision to canonize Popes John Paul II and John XXIII next April 27. Pairing the two was an unexpected decision by Pope Francis a couple of months ago, and I think he’s setting the stage for an event designed to underline church unity. Although the two popes had different approaches and appealed in different ways to groups of Catholics, by declaring them both saints Francis will accentuate the qualities that transcend those differences.