Pope Francis, one year on
Opinion: How successful has the pontiff been in his church reform plan?
‘Pope Francis wants a poor church and a church which reaches out to the poor. He challenges those who seem to think that we can continue to maintain an inward-looking Church, protected by safe closed doors, where we allow in only the purest of heart and where we rush back inside the moment we feel unconformable.’ Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis have much in common. Neither was the pundits’ favourite and their election came as a surprise to many. They both became pope at an age at which most people have long since retired. Despite their age, both realised there was a need to open windows and bring in fresh thought to the church, and, in the case of Pope Francis, to ensure even unopened windows would become transparent.
What popes John and Francis have most in common is that both were, above all, pastors. They both had reached high office, but both realised that exercising high office meant living out the same calling and lifestyle that had initially inspired them to become priests; there was nothing contradictory about a pope acting and living like a good, ordinary, caring and holy parish priest.
Begins with Mass
Like any parish priest, Pope Francis begins each day with a Mass open to different groups, at which he preaches simple, unscripted, yet profound reflections of the Gospel of the day. He hears confessions. He likes meeting people and is energised by meeting people. He is at home with those who are troubled; he often responds to their letters by calling them personally on the telephone. Seeing a young man whose face was covered in sores, he did not ask him what disease he had: he kissed him.
One of the first things the Vatican bureaucracy – just like any other – seeks to do for a new pope is to tell him how he should act. Pope Francis, from the very first moment of his election, showed that that was not going to be the case with him. He refused ornate vestments; he travelled back from the conclave to the residence of Santa Marta in a minibus with his fellow cardinals; he has remained in Santa Marta ever since and the limousines have been sent back to the garages.
Pope Francis is a master communicator. He uses earthy, colourful, short and pithy phrases. He speaks of “shepherds who smell of their sheep”; he says religious life is not “a bottle of distilled water”; he describes the church as a “field hospital” where injuries are treated. The three words that he recommends to married couples are simple and direct and for daily use: “Please, thank you, and I am sorry.”
He also uses short phrases to indicate things and attitudes that he does not like. When he does not like an attitude, he says so sharply: “Seminarians who act like little monsters end up being little monsters in parishes.”
How does one evaluate what the pope has achieved in this first year? Perhaps one way is to look at the very short talk – just over 500 words – he gave on the final day of the meetings of the cardinals before the conclave. He spoke of an outward-looking church: “The church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries.”
If the church does not reach out to evangelise, “she becomes self-referential and then gets sick”. A “self-referential church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out”.
Pope Francis has been consistent in his application of these ideas. He has begun also to tackle an inward-looking central administration of the church, especially its financial administration. He has set out a different vision for the synod of bishops in the church and the concept of synodality, a reality that the western church had long lost.
On more than one occasion Pope Francis has drawn attention to the polarities of “rigorism” and “laxism”. Irish Catholicism has for too long been rigorist. Today, however, Irish Catholicism runs the risk of being laxist. Many want just black-and- white certainties. Pope Francis sees that he must carry out his ministry in that grey area where the lives of so many people lie, between the black and white of rigorists and the laxists. He does not rush to judge, yet he does not leave the demands of Christian teaching aside.
Pope Francis wants a poor church and a church that reaches out to the poor. He challenges those who seem to think that we can continue to maintain an inward- looking church, protected by safe closed doors, where we allow in only the purest of heart and where we rush back inside the moment we feel unconformable.
How successful has Pope Francis been? The success of Pope Francis will not be the fruit of a process of reforms that he initiates and on which we, from our safe and secure positions, pass judgment as to how they fit with our own positions.
The success of Pope Francis’s agenda depends on us, the missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, and how far we are willing to make his agenda truly and uncomfortably our own.
Diarmuid Martin is Archbishop of Dublin