A Swiss Guard salutes as Pope Francis and cardinals leave a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican on Thursday (Feb. 20). The pope asked the world's cardinals and those about to be made cardinals to meet at the Vatican Feb. 20-21 to discuss the church's pastoral approach to the family. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

A Swiss Guard salutes as Pope Francis and cardinals leave a meeting in the synod hall at the Vatican on Thursday (Feb. 20). The pope asked the world’s cardinals and those about to be made cardinals to meet at the Vatican Feb. 20-21 to discuss the church’s pastoral approach to the family. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service


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VATICAN CITY (RNS) As Pope Francis approaches the one-year mark of his papacy, his global flock and a fascinated public are starting to measure the changes he is making against the sky-high hopes for transforming an institution many thought impervious to change.

Every personnel move and every new proposal is being scrutinized for what it might indicate about the direction of the church, what it might augur about possible adjustments to church teaching and whether the aspirations of so many will be fulfilled — or frustrated.

But as important as such structural and policy moves can be, church leaders and Vatican insiders say the 77-year-old Francis is really focused on a more ambitious (and perhaps more difficult) goal: overhauling and upending the institutional culture of Catholicism.

Francis, they say, is bent on converting the church, as it were, so that the faith is positioned to flourish in the future no matter who follows him to the throne of St. Peter.

“Some in the Roman Curia” — the Vatican bureaucracy — “say, well, this pope is old so let’s wait a bit, and things will return to the way they were,” said the Rev. Humberto Miguel Yanez, a fellow Argentine Jesuit, who heads the moral theology department at the Gregorian University in Rome.

“If this is the attitude, then his words and his reforms don’t mean anything. I think conversion is the most important thing, and that explains why Francis speaks every day, why he preaches every day. Some say that this pope talks and talks and talks but doesn’t do anything. But I think he is preparing the ground.”

According to those familiar with his thinking, the pope seems to be pursuing three main strategies:

ONE: Leveling with the hierarchy

Sure, Pope Francis has charmed the world with his easygoing manner, his populist homilies and his affecting way of reaching out to the marginalized. But woe to those churchmen who have been used to life at the top, and enjoy the view a bit too much.

Pope Francis meets with cardinals in Synod Hall at the Vatican on Friday (Feb. 21). RNS photo by David Gibson

Pope Francis meets with cardinals in Synod Hall at the Vatican on Friday (Feb. 21). RNS photo by David Gibson


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In repeated broadsides at the culture of clericalism, Francis tells his fellow hierarchs that they are not to think of themselves as “a royal court,” as he put it to his first batch of appointed cardinals.

That was just one in a series of blasts he issued in the days leading up to his first-year anniversary on March 13, reflecting an insistent theme of his young pontificate: Bishops are to lead by serving, not dominating. The centralized Curia, too, must not be “an inspector and inquisitor that no longer allows the action of the Holy Spirit and the development of the people of God.”

Hierarchical “careerism” is “a form of cancer,” Francis has said, comparing bishops who strut about in church finery to “peacocks.” Instead, he wants pastors who act as shepherds and who “smell of the sheep.” He does not want “airport bishops” who buzz around the world padding their resumes and preaching a doctrinaire gospel while living the good life. “Little monsters,” he calls such clerics.

While more than a few of the Vatican’s old guard find Francis’ predications “annoying,“ as one put it privately, they nonetheless acknowledge that he includes himself in his critique.

“I am a sinner,” as Francis put in a lengthy interview last summer. “This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” And in his landmark exhortation published last November, he harped on the need for the conversion of the church: “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.”

As potent and attractive as those words are, church insiders say Francis first needs time — years, not months — to appoint bishops who buy into his vision. That’s not to discount the fact that many bishops have been moved by his exhortations, and others are adjusting their behavior accordingly.

“How many BMWs do you see parked in the Vatican these days?” a well-connected American layman said recently as he surveyed the Roman scene, asking for anonymity in order to speak frankly. “You just don’t see the Gucci loafers anymore.”

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the conclusion of a consistory at which Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 22. Pope Benedict's presence at the ceremony marked the first time he had joined Pope Francis for a public liturgy. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the conclusion of a consistory at which Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 22. Pope Benedict’s presence at the ceremony marked the first time he had joined Pope Francis for a public liturgy. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service


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TWO: Teaching Catholic leaders to talk, and trust

If there was a single, central dynamic driving the coalition of cardinals that elected Francis in last year’s conclave, it was the desire to put an end to the command-and-control style that characterized Rome’s management under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Dissent was quashed and suspect theologians were silenced. Bishops constantly looked over their shoulders, worried about perceived lapses in orthodoxy while Vatican departments tried to micromanage local issues that Rome knew little or nothing about. Dialogue was out, conformity was in, and bishops who toiled outside Rome were fed up.

Not anymore. Francis has welcomed criticism and opposing opinions; as he put it in an interview with an Italian newspaper just this week, “fraternal and open confrontations help develop theological and pastoral thinking. I do not fear this; on the contrary I seek it.”

To that end, Francis has summoned his cardinals and bishops to Rome for regular meetings, including an intense 10-day stretch at the end of February to talk about Vatican finances, reforming the Curia and launching a two-year dialogue on tough pastoral issues such as Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

But while many were looking for the recent meetings to produce policy statements or other portents, the real goal was to get senior church leaders used to talking openly and honestly — even in front of the pope.

“The big change is the emphasis on collegiality, on collaboration,” said Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, who advises the pope as head of the Vatican department that writes the statutes that will turn reform proposals into church law.

Francis, the cardinal said, is trying to get cardinals and bishops to realize that “they can listen to everyone and speak freely and without fear, that each one can say what they think. They can be correct in what they say, and if not, it’s fine that they think differently.”

THREE: Evangelizing the world to convert the church

Whereas John Paul and Benedict focused in their different ways on persuading a skeptical world to put its faith in the Catholic Church, Francis is trying to persuade  a fearful church to go out and engage the world.

Cardinals stand beside the altar as Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of World Youth Day on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro July 28. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Cardinals stand beside the altar as Pope Francis celebrates the closing Mass of World Youth Day on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro July 28. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service


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He gives interviews to atheists, cold-calls all manner of people, and on Holy Thursday washed the feet of young inmates — including women and Muslims. He is constantly pushing the church to go “out to the periphery” to find the least and the lost. “A church that doesn’t get out, sooner or later, gets sick from being locked up,” as Francis put it, stressing that he prefers a church that is out in the street and “runs the risk of an accident.”

Such talk is hugely popular, of course, but it isn’t just public relations.

At the closed-door meetings that preceded last year’s conclave, each of the more than 150 cardinals had five minutes to speak on where the church should be headed, and implicitly, who among them would be the man to lead them there.

Most of the cardinals took up more than their allotted time, but then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires actually used under five minutes when his time came, delivering a remarkable diagnosis of a “navel-gazing” church that he said was suffering from a “theological narcissism” that tried to keep Jesus locked inside when in fact “sometimes Jesus knocks from within, wanting to be let out into the wider world.”

A few days later, Bergoglio emerged as Pope Francis. Ever since, he has been preaching this same message — not a new theory of Catholicism, but rather a reminder that the church can only be true to itself when it goes outside of itself, and leaves behind all the internal disputes and power struggles that have sapped its spirit.

“The path opens by walking along it,” is the way that the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit in Rome who is close to the pope, characterized the process.

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

‘We have reached the point of no return’

Far less certain is how long it will take Francis to implement the transformation he has started, and whether it will endure. “I’m firmly convinced we are at the dawn of a new era in the church,” said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who heads the “kitchen Cabinet” of eight cardinals that Francis handpicked to advise him.

Francis could end up being nothing more than an inspiring role model, an object of great affection and even devotion but one whose impact disappears when he leaves the scene. Would the power of his example and his constant exhortations go with him? Or has the Catholic Church reached a tipping point on reform?

“I would say that the key to this pontificate is the greater freedom to express one’s opinions without fear,” said Coccopalmerio. “On that we have reached the point of no return. That is the important reform, and there can be no going back.”

One point in Francis’ favor is that nothing succeeds like success. Now that the hierarchy has seen how popular Francis has been, even those who disagree with him don’t want to go back to the bad old days of constantly playing defense on a range of issues.

“The new uncertainties beat the old certainties,” as one Vatican official put it privately. “He has liberated such hopes and expectations among the broader public that there is no going back, or it would come at too high a cost.”

Yanez, the Argentine Jesuit who knows Francis from seminary, agrees.

“I think on many things already we have reached the point of no return,” he said. “There has been a reawakening of the Christian conscience that, it seems to me, will be difficult to reverse.”

“Still,” he conceded, “there is a lot to do.”

KRE/MG END GIBSON

15 Comments

  1. Yes, but … I know many ex-Catholics who like the new pope but see clearly that what they see as the erroneous sexual teachings of the Catholic church and, in the US, the church’s alliance with right-wing politicians will not be changed at all. They left because they came to realize that so many priests and people in the pews were unpleasant in their self-righteousness to the point of having contempt for charity. The doctrinaire seemed to think sarcasm and bullying are gifts of the Holy Spirit. The doctrinaire still control the Catholic church, and who wants to be affiliated with them? Most who left will not be returning to the Catholic church, and this gladdens the hearts of the doctrinaire.

    • I am curious about what part of the country you live in. In the Midwest, where I live, those ex-Catholics that I know left the Church because of Vatican II, or because they could not reconcile their own opinions about birth control, divorce, etc. with Church teachings. Personally, I went to a Catholic grade school, HS and University and have never run into any Catholic or priest exhibiting the traits you mention. I also know no ex-Catholics who have cited the reasons you have for leaving the Church.. All the Catholics I know are also pretty big on charitable giving as well as doing charity work,.

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        Url knw hw we. Gt the bible in english it was tru the reformers who where martyred for the truth by the roman catholic church study who is dat fourth kingdom n u is the little horn dat came amongst the ten kingdoms. N wu is the three kingdoms dat fel n wu destroyed dem revelation clearly identifies wu is the little horn power.know ur history abt the martyres wu died at the stake 4 truth n the whole world wonder after the beast did url knw dat pope constantine changed the sabbath read the catholic catecism dey admit dat dey changed the sabbath from saturday to sunday revelation says he wil tink to change the times laws n the whole world. Wonders after the beast people wake up n study revelation its prophecy pls find a book called the Great Controversy the whole truth about history n da church n da dark ages wat happend der the inquistion the martyers Jerome n huss n luther wu knocked the 95 theses on the door of the catholic church william tyndale john knox pls find the history of dis martyers. The times times n times n half in daniel is tolkin abt the darkages c for ur self .c secrets of the jesuits n francis is the first jesuit to bcome pope n c the jesuit oat dis is very serious I’m a christian searchin 4 truth. Turn to acts 8vs37 in ur bible its only in da kings james I was amazed n started 2 fnd out wat hppn bt den history tel me the church re wrote a thousand copies n started to distribute dem bfore da martyers translate dem call no man father on earth bt people go to the confessin box for forgiveness n say father forgive me for I hve sinned come out of babylon my people meaning cum out of confusion pls chk does books u will b amazed livin in da lastdays look around us people are lovers of money more dan god dey even preachin abt money luv url wud da real luv of jesus datruth hurts but the pope fits the character of the anti christ liv by the law n u wil b saved by grace jesus said heaven n earth wil pass bt not one jot or titlles wil b changed from the law

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    He tryin to make peace but my bible tels me dat sudden destruction shall come I believe wat luther said sola scripturia means scripture n scripture alone. I go to my bible watch 4 wolves in sheep clothing false prophets kenneth copeland in his latest news said dat luthers protest is over if u a protestant may I asked u what are u protesting abt. Der are millions wu knws dis truth n dey are going to church on saturday we gt freedom of choice if u read another book called morals n dogma find it. N read it .Jesus luvs da sinner but hates da sin .wat is sin its da transgression of the law u break 1 u break all so wat abt the fourth commandment says remembeR the sabbath coz he knew we will forget n da only church dats preachin da truth is the sevent day adventist the pope said it himself if u fllw the bible sabbath u must b a seventday adventist hey I learned a lot. I’m willing to giv any one my house n my mum wants to giv 2 brand new industrial sewing machines a flat n overlock if url can show me in da bible we’re it says we mus keep sunday the first day of the week holy or the resurruction holy. I very serious its not going to b easy my wife father is a pastor bcos of the truth he cameagainst us just for askin certain question like what is the beast in revelation he couldn’t tel me but he went to college but then the jesuits started the college

  1. […] As the media continue to size up Pope Francis’ papacy at the one-year mark, David Gibson of Religion News Service writes about Francis’ plan for reform. He says Francis wants to overhaul and upend “the institutional culture of Catholicism” by leveling the hierarchy, teaching Catholic leaders to teach and to trust and evangelizing the world. Read his article, “Pope Francis’ Plan for Reform: Convert the Church,” by clicking here. […]

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