This pope is absolutely amazing. Earlier this week he released his first major “exhortation” to the Church universal entitled The Joy of the Gospel. There were probably few ghostwriters for this piece. It is clear when you read it, and I am reading it for the third time, that it is pure Pope Francis. It is a challenge to the Church from a shepherd who lived and worked in a large urban environment in the new world where everything does not work or look like it might in Europe. For the last several hundred years our Church has often looked and acted like a European Church. But in the emerging churches what might play in Prague or Paris or Peoria for that matter more often than not just doesn’t work elsewhere in the world.
The Holy Father has addressed fundamental challenges facing the entire world, especially the poorer nations and challenges the more prosperous to an even higher level of accountability. And what he asks of nations, he also asks of persons. Voices have already been raised in certain quarters in the last week along the general lines of “the Pope seems like a nice man but an economist he is not.” At times it seems to me like the old canard that if you don’t like the message, then shoot the messenger. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI also wrote of the vast disparities arising from economic inequalities among nations and peoples but perhaps because Pope Francis is so popular, one can expect fairly severe criticisms directed his way and we should be supportive of him. He knows what the poor look like, what they need and seek.
To my utter amazement, the TAMPA BAY TIMES editorially embraced the Holy Father yesterday (Saturday) and his worldview and pastoral mission. In my soon to be eighteen years completed as bishop here, it is the first time I can remember such editorial support from this paper directed to the Holy Father personally and the Church he leads. The editorial board of that paper seems to understand not only his economic views, but his desire to make our Church more missionary as well.
But right at the same time the Church around the world is beginning yet another Church year, the same The Joy of the Gospel shines yet further light on the vision of this Pope for what the Church of the early part of this century should look like. A papal vision that is beginning to take shape, flesh being applied to structural bones. It begins with an acknowledgement that he, the Pope, will seek the counsel and opinion of others in order to make the Church more responsive to the times. Was that not what Blessed John XXIII said when he called the Second Vatican Council together?
The Second Vatican Council was the first stirring of unrest out in the trenches of the world. Read any history of those proceedings and one soon realizes that the “earth-shattering” ideas of collegiality, subsidiarity, and synodalism were seen as threats to a certain command and control structure. Strengthening national conferences of bishops was in some quarters seen as a sure recipe for weakening the central curia’s command and control structure and they responded. It was seen in some places as a “battle” for the soul of the Church. The bishops of the world in Council could pass all the documents they wished, but when it came to implementation, Rome retained its absolute power. The key word in the struggle was a Latin word, “recognitio” and almost every major action, which would be taken by an episcopal conference anywhere, demanded a “Good Housekeeping stamp of approval” (my image for what the word “Recognitio” means) from someone in the direct service of the Holy See. Now our new Holy Father is suggesting that national episcopal conferences might have some element of teaching authority, that they might just be better positioned to decide some issues locally than the Holy See (subsidiarity), and that more effective evangelization of people might be possible as a result of larger collaboration and listening. It is truly, possibly a new Advent.
We were once told that episcopal conferences did not have teaching authority which might ultimately be binding on the Catholic population of a nation (our conference had never claimed such) so imagine me almost falling out of my chair when in his exhortation, Pope Francis cites documents of episcopal conferences, including our own, as examples of how local churches teach.
While affirming the fact that he believes the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is forever closed, he dreams of women in the highest positions of authority, which do not require ordination. He foresees a priesthood, which does not rest in a rectory, till the doorbell or phone rings, but actively places itself at the direct and constant service of the poor. On abortion, he reaffirms the tragic moral evil, which it is, but he challenges us to be as concerned about the distressed woman who seeks an abortion and what we might do should she choose life. The difference to me is that his questions are not rhetorical but demanding of answers and incorporation into our mission. The larger Church can and should do what many of our parishes have successfully begun, shift from maintenance to mission.
So, along comes the Joy of the Gospel suggesting that there can be and needs to be a better way of being Church universal. And to back up what he said on Monday, on Friday Pope Francis met with the heads of all the major religious orders of men in the world. Believe me, more than most of we diocesan bishops, religious superiors of men and women serve in the front lines of evangelization. Pope Francis in the meeting called them prophets. The classic definition of a prophet is “one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” He did not give them a speech. Not this Pope. No text. Instead he tells them, tell me what is on your mind, what are you praying for, how can I help and he stays with them not thirty minutes but three hours. It is possibly the beginning of a whole new way of being Church.
We now have a successor to Peter who seems to think that the local churches have a strength which needs to be allowed to germinate, bloom and flower and he wants to listen to all. (A note to my diocesan readers: don’t forget to take the survey on Marriage and Family Life in our day on the diocesan website: www.dosp.org).
If, perchance, you feel a new sense of energy and excitement in these words, which I pen here and earlier, it is true. Thanksgiving week was a great week for the Church and for myself as well. Today we truly are beginning a “new Advent” and our period of waiting is winding down. Blessed Advent to all. Read the exhortation by clicking here and also here is the Tampa Bay Times editorial.
P.S. I would also recommend a very incisive monograph by Archbishop John R. Quinn, Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco, entitled Ever Ancient, Ever New: Structures of Communion in the Church recently published by the Paulist Press.