Church reform depends on us as much as on the pope

Pope Francis can empower the church to exit from culture of silence and deference


Like most people and, I suspect, most Jesuits, I was surprised on Wednesday evening last to learn that the cardinals had elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy. What might we hope for from his time as pope?

It helps that the man has a sense of humour. It is reported that he left the cardinals to go out on to the balcony to greet the crowds by saying “May God forgive you all!” And on the balcony he began by noting that the cardinals had gone almost to “the end of the world” to elect the new Bishop of Rome, and ended by wishing all a “good night, have a good rest”, as if talking to familiars. He came across as someone with simplicity, a prayerful man of faith and warmth. This has since been confirmed by what we have learned about his lifestyle. All this conveys a person of substance and yet one with a light touch.

We have learned too about his deep commitment to the poor and to social justice. This is good news for so many. And perhaps the taking of the name Francis may mean care of the environment is included in his notion of social justice?

He will have learned from his Jesuit background, as from many other sources, that justice certainly involves a real compassion and care for individuals who are suffering, but also the struggle to reform structures and institutions. Perhaps in this context he will be better able to convey to victims of clerical sexual abuse that the church is truly sorry, and that effective remedial means have been taken and will be taken. And with his Ignatian background of “finding God in all things” he may well have interesting ways of addressing secularisation.

So far, perhaps so obvious – and encouraging.

I was struck by two other aspects of his short address to the crowd.

First, he several times referred to his new role as Bishop of Rome – not pope, not Supreme Pontiff. I would suggest that this was not accidental. I am supposing that he wanted to locate himself among, and not apart from, his fellow cardinals and bishops. This is of huge significance: could we be seeing here the first concrete steps towards a re-imagining of the papacy in a more collegial manner, true to the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council? The days of absolute monarchy should be well and truly over.

Pope John Paul II suggested as much when, in 1995 in Ut Unum Sint , he asked for help in re-envisaging the papacy so that it could better serve its function as a service of unity and love.

In the same vein, it was fascinating that before giving his Urbi et Orbi blessing to the assembled crowd and to the world he paused and asked for their blessing, their prayer for him – and bowed in silence when receiving it. Here he was situating himself among the people of God – the description used by the Second Vatican Council to express the mystery of the church. The baptised first, then priests, bishops, pope in service of the people.

This is consistent with his reported criticism of “clericalism” while still in Argentina. And it takes up the teaching of Vatican II that the faithful share in the role of Jesus Christ as prophet (teacher), priest (the common priesthood of the faithful) and king (a share in decision-making). It respects the notion of the “sense of the faithful” as a source of church teaching.

It will be so interesting to see if the new Bishop of Rome can begin, with the help of others, to devise structures and institutions by which this kind of collegiality at all levels of the church can be made effective and the vision of Vatican II implemented. I am thinking of regular synods and councils – even, eventually an Ecumenical Council which another elderly and seemingly “caretaker” pope, John XXIII called – which could feed into church teaching and decision-making. I am thinking of the learning we can experience from our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters in this respect. I am thinking of the reform of canon law to allow for effective episcopal collegiality and decision-making powers to laity, thus empowering parish councils.

It would be a wonderful first step if Francis could instigate a reform of the Roman curia, resisting its tendency (like that of all civil servants?) to usurp executive power rather than offer administrative service. Might he, as others have suggested, introduce many more lay people, women and men, into the curia, from all around the world? Might he even – as is possible if one looks back historically – call lay men to be cardinals, and then why not lay women, to help him and his fellow bishops govern the church?

It is reported that Francis is traditional in many of the so-called neuralgic areas of church teaching to do with sexuality and gender. But with his Jesuit background in Ignatian discernment, both personal and communal, might he be less fearful about having issues discussed more openly, so that church teaching might more surely arrive at a truth that could be received in peace by the faithful?

But, in the end, it depends as much on us as on Francis. A colleague once wondered aloud if perhaps the Holy Spirit had been “taking a nap” since Vatican II. But perhaps it is we Catholics who have been sleeping? Structured conversations in dioceses such as Down and Connor, Killaloe, Kerry and others have already thrown up hopeful straws in the wind.

Similarly organisations like the Association of Catholic Priests and the soon-to-be-formally launched Association of Catholics in Ireland are giving leadership. How wonderful if the advent of Pope Francis might empower our bishops also to exit from that culture of silence and deference which, thankfully, is a thing of the past with regard to child sexual abuse, but which too often reigns supreme in so many other areas of church life.

How wonderful, if for church and world, Pope Francis might, in a Christ-like way, say to the rest of us: “Wake up, Lazarus!”

Fr Gerry O’Hanlon S J is a s ocial theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and assistant professor of systematic theology at the Milltown Institute in Dublin

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.