Francis lays down new template for pastoral leadership in universal Church

When news of the elevation of Msgr Julian Leow to Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur broke, it came as something of a surprise to many.

Oct 01, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
When news of the elevation of Msgr Julian Leow to Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur broke, it came as something of a surprise to many.

Similarly, the startling promotion recently of Bishop Blase Cupich from his small diocese of Spokane, Washington, with a population of 90,000 Catholics, to his new position as Archbishop of Chigago, one of the major centres of American Catholicism with 2.2m Catholics, raised eyebrows.

In both cases, we can detect a significant shift in emphasis in the universal Church as the Bishop of Rome attempts to steer the universal Church in a new direction.

The Pope wants church leaders not to indulge in conservative judgmentalism — “Who am I to judge?” is his now famous quote. Instead, he wants down-to-earth pastoral leaders who can accompany the people as earthly shepherds who, themselves smell of sheep. In other words, pastors who are in touch with the realities faced by the people, their hardships and suffering.

Francis also wants to build a culture of inclusivism — so that the poor, immigrant groups, people who have been alienated from the Church for various reasons, may find a welcoming home. The Church needs to be a place of healing and compassion where people are embraced with love and mercy.

In the United States, this perhaps means steering away from the divisive ‘culture wars’ of focusing almost exclusively on hot button issues such as abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage to a more holistic “pro-life” vision that includes reaching out to the poor and those often excluded or marginalised from the Church and the rest of society and protecting the environment.

Under this broader vision, advocating accessible health care as a basic right, promoting welfare reforms and taking concrete measures to stave off climate change are just as important for the common good.

Cupich himself regards economic inequality as “a powder keg that is as dangerous as the environmental crisis the world is facing today.”

As workers struggle to eke out a living across the world in the face of neoliberalism, Malaysia too is not spared the implications of the wide gulf between the super rich and those on the periphery. To resonate with the poor and the alienated, the universal Church needs pastoral leaders who are in touch with ordinary people — leaders whose lifestyle of simplicity and humility and dialogue will resonate with the faithful, who can see in the characteristics of their leaders the hallmarks of the Gospels.

Bishop-elect Leow seems to fit into this template of leadership which Francis has been advocating for the universal Church. Like Cupich, he was something of a surprise choice, coming out of the periphery at College General in Penang to helm the major Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

In a note sent to Fides, Archbishop-elect Leow said he wants to live a ministry characterised by “witnessing Christ, proclaiming the Good News to everyone, working so that everyone can live in harmony and peace”, in the hope that “ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is the cornerstone of our unity.”

He is a keen advocate of dialogue and this will be much needed in the face of the emergence of right-wing ethno-nationalism, whose divisive rhetoric is driving a wedge in our society.

Indeed, Archbishop-elect Leow sees “hope”, which means “to promote authentic dialogue, in humility and mutual respect”, as key in building “a tolerant and attentive society where everyone can fully enjoy life and freedom, the protection of rights and the protection of fundamental freedoms.”

Like Archbishop-elect Leow, Cupich is also know for his simple and humble lifestyle. He reportedly lives in a room at a seminary and owns no furniture. He was previously reportedly reassessing his diocesan budget to ensure it places greater emphasis on the needs of the poor. says one of Cupic’s first major decisions as archbishop of Chicago will be to decide whether to sell the diocese’s luxurious mansion in Lincoln Park. Many will be watching closely.

All said, the seeds have been planted for a new model of Church leadership for the future that is attuned to the real needs of the poor, the suffering and the alienated. It is a model that will also have to deal with humanity’s broken relationship with the environment as witnessed by the stern challenges posed by climate change and depleting and degraded natural resources.

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