What's coming next from 'a man from a far country'?

Pope Francis completes eight years in office on March 13 after asking Catholics to look at the Church differently.

Mar 13, 2021

By Myron J. Pereira
Pope Francis completes eight years in office on March 13 after asking Catholics to look at the Church differently.

Many of us still remember how depressed we all were during the last days of the rule of Pope Benedict XVI. Both he and his predecessor John Paul II had fettered the Church, clamping down harshly on freedom of expression and sabotaging several Vatican Council initiatives.

At the same time, reports of the sexual crimes of the clergy and their bishops increasingly made us despair of leadership in the Church.

Then Pope Francis came, “a man from a far country,” and within six months the mood of the whole Church changed. He brought with him the “joy of the Gospel,” even as the whole world looked on and marveled.

So, what has Francis achieved these last eight years? In a word, he has fundamentally changed the way in which we see the Church.

Other popes wrote about the “new evangelization” in an abstract and boring way. Francis tells us that the very the first words of the Gospel are about the compassion and mercy of God, not about dogmas, not about rules.

Our response, he says, must be to show compassion to all our brothers and sisters, especially the poor, the marginalized, refugees, the homeless and the sick. And Francis practised this, publicly, regularly, unapologetically.

Francis is more interested in how we live the faith (orthopraxis) than how we understand the faith (orthodoxy).

And his way of doing this is to encourage open discussion and debate in the Church. It is impossible to describe how extraordinary this is.

During the pontificate of John Paul II, bishops had been censured and even replaced for voicing disagreement over issues of women priests, celibacy, divorce and the Eucharist. Theologians faced the same censure.

During this time, priests were promoted not for their pastoral skills but for how loyal they were to Rome.

But not with Pope Francis. One no longer hears of theologians being investigated and silenced. For his first synod on the family, he took the unprecedented step of circulating a survey to find out what ordinary Catholics think.

The result: a freer exchange of views, public disagreements and even outright criticism of the pope. Unthinkable, earlier.

For the very first time in history, the pope has selected a “council of nine” cardinals to advise him publicly on how to run the Church. They meet frequently, and their membership keeps changing. Will there be laypersons and women on board soon? With Pope Francis, one never knows.

Changing the clerical culture
But more importantly, Pope Francis has tried to change the culture of the clergy, moving it from an ambitious and self-absorbed clericalism to a vocation of service. For as he put it, priests should “smell like the sheep.”

Has he succeeded? Not entirely.

As we realize more and more today, the celibate clergy has become an old boys’ club where resistance to change is at its most fierce.

The appalling sexual crimes of the clergy in recent decades — pedophilia and the assaults on nuns and married women — are only matched by the complicity of the bishops and cardinals with the perpetrators, shielding them from trial and punishment. This must change.

Even more necessary are the reforms of the governance structures of the Church, starting with the Roman Curia and its financial scandals. Francis has bravely taken up the cudgel and chosen bishops and cardinals from among prelates who are most likely to carry on his reforms, not countermand them.

Environmental issues
The most significant action taken by the pope is raising environmental issues to a central place. In his encyclical Laudato Si', the pope says that “living our vocation to be protectors of God’s creation is essential to a life of virtue; it is not optional or secondary.”

In writing thus, the pope has made the Church an ally in the fight to save the environment. Activists, earlier skeptical of the Church and its teachings, now realize that religion is one of the few things that can motivate people to save the planet. Laudato Si' has shown the way.

A new world with new values
However, the world is changing, and not always for the better. Even within the Church, there are many who look on Vatican II as increasingly irrelevant to the issues of today.

Many ask, for instance, why the council did not take up issues of race and gender, major issues in today’s world, in as radical a way as the Gospel teaches.

Such questions ignore the limitations of history. Vatican II is the legacy of a Europe just emerging from a destructive war and still shaking off its imperial past. It may have confronted a post-colonial world, but it did not as yet understand it.

Indeed, during Vatican II we still believed in a universalist theology as developed in the West in 1960s. Gender and race had little place.

Vatican II emphasized the “collegiality” of the bishops and wanted the practice of synods to support it. It did not anticipate the manipulation of the Roman Curia to cripple this innovation and render it ineffective.

For there exists even now a powerful coterie of churchmen who long for the days of Christendom, when European Catholicism was the center of the world. Anything which threatened it was anathema.

In Latin America, the rise of liberation theology was seen as such a threat, and at least two popes insisted on expunging it from every pulpit and seminary classroom.

In moving to reform the governance structures of the Church, Francis has proceeded slowly because the resistance to his reforms is overwhelming. For the opposition to him originates in the opposition to Vatican II and its new vision for the Church.

Still, the council did not anticipate the sexual scandals and the complicity of the Church’s bishops during the decades which followed. These scandals rendered the whole structure of the hierarchy hollow and compromised.

Today the role of women in the Church, and the issue of the abuse of power and authority, call for a new template for the Church. Not bishop-centered but with the participation of all the members of the Church, lay as well as clerical. The word for this is "synodality."

Interfaith conflict, not dialogue
How are ecumenism and interreligious dialogue perceived today in this 21st century world? We seem to have moved from a narrative of encounter to a narrative of conflict.

Compared to the 1960s and '70s, Catholicism has to engage with more assertive (both religiously and politically) faiths around the world. In many parts of Africa and Asia, Christianity is persecuted. In part, this is because of its earlier association with colonialism, but more particularly because of an aggressive and revivalist faith (consider Islamism or Hindutva, for example) which has global aspirations and a selective memory of past injury.

Christians in the South, being largely poor, are easy prey, unlike their rich coreligionists in the West.

Is Vatican II still relevant?
Perceptions about the relevance or irrelevance of Vatican II vary from place to place. In Latin America, for instance, Vatican II is still highly regarded both in the Church and in academic circles, while in the United States opinion is more divided. Western Europe gave birth to the council, while Eastern Europe is still a stranger to its many initiatives.

And then we have many parts of Asia and Africa where the council and its decrees are still unknown and unread, where the local churches live by John Paul II’s Catechism.

This makes us ask realistically: Was Vatican II really the beginning of dialogue with secular culture and with other religions? Did Vatican II embrace decolonization or did it only extend the life of colonial theology?

But that just shows how the global conversation on the Council varies and changes substantially around the world.

Perhaps there's reason to hope that Vatican II can find new life in local expressions of synodality, a process much more participatory than mere collegiality. For synodality involves laypersons as much as it does clerics.

Alas, we are still dealing with the relics of a world view which sees the pope as monarch, the sole representative under God for every detail of belief and practice, as an authority accountable to no one on earth.

Such a view owes nothing to the New Testament and everything to the Roman imperium, which deified its rulers. The longing for power dies hard, especially among churchmen.

Francis' pontificate is different. He has shown conclusively how the theology of Vatican II has been the key to the transition from a European-centered Catholicism to a global one. And through the practice of mercy, he has radically changed the image of the Church.

Amanda Gorman, the young American poet who spoke at US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, said recently in a tweet: “Anyone who speaks the truth and walks with hope is an obvious danger to the powers that be. I am a threat — a threat to injustice, to inequality, to ignorance.”

At the end of eight years, perhaps we can say the same of Pope Francis.––ucanews.com

(Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. 
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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