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Francis the Reformer: Some Reflections


In his latest bombshell interview – this time with the left-leaning, secular La Repubblica – Pope Francis shows again that he really is a pope who gets it: Most of the Church – indeed, most of the world – is not much interested in the crimson and lace of renaissance papal pageantry, or the single-issue heterodoxy of even the most well-meaning culture warriors.

Instead, we are yearning, thirsting, starving for the Gospel, and for the reforms necessary to move the Light of the Nations out from under the bushel basket and back onto the lamp-stand. Let the world see, and the world will believe. The only way to focus on the Big Thing is to clear out the little things that, by justice, need changing. Tinkering is not enough, and prayer without action is merely piety.

In the last six months, I have seen and heard the bishop of Rome take on clericalism, careerism, triumphalism, and narcissism in ecclesial leadership – the root causes of the sexual abuse crisis, the financial crisis, and the vocations crisis, to name a few. He has touted a hermeneutic of mercy, and condemned the selfish materialism of the world. He desires a poor church for the poor, and is willing to actually do something about it.  He has promised discussion on the role of women in the Church (though, to be fair, so did Popes John Paul II and Benedict), and there is reason to believe it might actually happen. He proposes reforming the curia, the synod of bishops, and the attitude of princely prelates.

In his first interview, with La Civiltà Cattolica, he talked about the importance of dialogue, discernment, and the frontier. When asked about reforming the Roman Curia, he talked about ecumenism and the need for ecumenical reception, especially from the Christian East, in the areas of synodality and collegiality. He talked about the Jesuit gift for being centered on Christ and the Church while reaching out to the borders, to the people on the fringe, most in need of Mother Church’s warm embrace and, sadly, mostly likely to have experienced a clerical cold shoulder. Previously, when asked for advice for leadership in any field, his said his advice is always the same: “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue!”

Today he referred twice to the late Cardinal Carlo Martini, archbishop of Milan and perennial papabile for the moderates in the college of cardinals. In his first angelus, he cited Cardinal Walter Kasper, the brilliant theologian and chief ecumenist under Pope Benedict. He also made a few remarks that seem to have been lost in translation, so we shall see!

The bishop of Rome is called, in canon law, the Roman Pontiff. Sometimes he is given the imperial title of pontifex maximus. These are, truly, ecumenical titles that literally mean “bridge-builder”. The bishop of Rome, as successor of Peter, has as his unique vocation to build up unity between divided Christians and churches. Like his predecessors in the last fifty years, Pope Francis is clearly dedicated to this. Nearly twenty years after Pope John Paul II asked for input on how to reform the Petrine Ministry for the sake of Christian Unity, Pope Francis seems ready to start implementing some of the recommended changes.


His critics are tired of hearing about his humility, and want to insist that it was fun to be Catholic before, too. Suddenly the neo-cons and radical traditionalists are vying to prove which are really, truly “more Catholic than the pope” and have discovered to their mutual horror that ultramontanism is not actually all it was cracked up to be the last twenty or thirty years. Some of the same voices shouting “santo subito” at JPII’s funeral or printing John Paul II the Great buttons before he was even dead, are suddenly warning against a papal cult of personality.

On the other hand, my students want to know why no one has ever spoken about the Church like this, and why there has never been such a popular pope before (granted, they are too young to remember John Paul II’s early years, and even I am too young to remember the excitement in the wake of Vatican II).

After I posted a link to today’s interview, a friend wrote me this message:

It has been a struggle for me, at times, to feel comfortable going to church. This is not because of the individual people at our parish, but because the structure of the church has been so dominating and exclusionary. The article you posted this morning brought tears to my eyes. If Pope Francis truly guides the Church in the direction he says he is, I am more at peace with raising my children Catholic than I ever have been.

A couple weeks ago, I naively ventured out to St. Peter’s early on a Wednesday morning, thinking I would sneak in the basilica before the crowds began to show up for the 10.30 audience. I should have known better. Already at 08.00 the piazza was full, and I overheard one tour guide complain, “What can I do? I have a group coming at 10:15! This never used to be a problem!”

This is a pope who knows how to pope. He is the bishop of Rome, the servant of the servants of God. Pray for him, because we need him. We need the vision of Vatican II to be unfettered and its reforms fully implemented, and need them to be done now, after years of discussion and debate, it is time for reception. We need the scandal of a broken, divided Body of Christ to be overcome, and we need the conversion of hearts and minds that are the first step to both reform and reconciliation. The world needs the Church, and the Church needs to be in the world…. not passively, but actively.

This is our mission and our vocation, and my bishop is asking you to embrace it. Please do.



On the Spirit of the Council

“The only spirit or ghost of a Council is the one called Holy — exorcising that from the hermeneutic is the problem, not the solution. There is no hermeneutic of reform without the Spirit of the Council; only rupture and the pride of men.”

In other words, if you reject the Spirit of Vatican II, you are rejecting the Holy Spirit. Plain and simple. Now, there are legitamate criticisms of some usages of this phrase, or some actions made on its behalf, particularly way back in the 60s, but that is not the same as throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Put another way, the so-called “hermeneutic of discontinuity” or “hermeneutic of rupture” – the idea that Vatican II created something entirely new- is the error of the traditionalists, schismatics, and sedevacantists who reject the Council, or who seek to undermine its genuine authority. (Usually with some argument that a “pastoral” council is not a “dogmatic” council. As if the Church makes any such distinction.)

The big supporters of  Vatican II as a Church-changing event, as a “new pentecost” are best described as “hermeneutic  of reform” or of “reform in continuity”.

Then those who say that nothing really happened at all, that really Vatican II intended no changes, are simply exercising a “hermeneutic of continuity”.

That’s my nutshell take; Would appreciate serious discussion.

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