Pope Francis may end the fear and oppression in the Church
What will Pope Francis be like? That is the question many people are asking. He has been elected pope after four amazing weeks in the Catholic Church. I am referring to the weeks between Benedict’s retirement and Francis’ election. What happened during those weeks took me completely by surprise. There was an outbreak of open discussion about the problems within the Church that began to happen as soon as Benedict stepped down. He deserves great credit, because, whether he intended it or not, his decision to retire was what set the wheels of discussion in motion. Then, over the next few weeks, we had archbishops and cardinals saying things about the Church that up to then were only being said by groups like the Association of Catholic Priests. There was suddenly a widespread recognition of the urgent need for reform and renewal in the Church. People at the highest level began to accept that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council had not been properly implemented. And most strongly of all, almost everyone going into the conclave seemed to accept that the Vatican structure, what we call the Curia, was dysfunctional, and not serving the Church well. There were even suggestions of possible corruption within the Vatican. For people like ourselves in the ACP, who had been saying these things for the past few years, it was extraordinary to hear our best lines being taken by senior cardinals.
So Francis has come into office with a wind of change at his back. It still remains to be seen if he will allow it to blow freely. The initial signs are promising. I love the early indications that his style will be simple, that we will see the end of all the excessive pomp and ceremony, of dressing up, that became a feature of the Church in recent years. His love for the poor is also a very powerful sign. And I am glad to see the end of the red shoes! “The carnival is over” he is reputed to have said when someone offered him the red shoes.
He is not going to be a radical. He will not suddenly issue a degree abolishing compulsory celibacy and ordaining women. That is clearly not his style. In fact, it would seem that in matters such as these he tends to be conservative. But that doesn’t worry me at all. In fact I wouldn’t want a Pope to do such things. I am looking for something more simple and basic from him. I would love him to create a climate within the Church where there is freedom of thought and expression, where issues can be discussed and debated. Because that is the only proper way in which to bring about real change. Change that comes through a decree from on high is no good, and will not survive. But change that comes through a process of discussion, or dialogue, as we call it in the Church, is the enduring kind of change.
I am hopeful that he will do this, that he will put an end to that awful era of fear and oppression that has been such a part of the Church in recent times, and replace it with openness and dialogue. In other words, that we would have a continuation of the type of discussion that went on right around the Church during those weeks of the interregnum. I think it is important that Francis has come from a religious background, that in fact he is the first Jesuit pope. For the past fifty years the structures of government in religious life have been based on discussion and dialogue. All important decisions are made in consultation with the members. So this way of governing should be deeply imbued in the new Pope. For this reason I have a positive sense that we have put the era of diktat from the top behind us, and that at last the notion of collegiality as proclaimed in Vatican ll may come into its own.
Maybe I am over optimistic. But this is a time for hope, both because of the sense of a new Spirit blowing through the Vatican, and also because we are about to celebrate Easter and the Resurrection.
• Fr Tony Flannery CSsR is a member of the Leadership Team of the ACP