Will church leaders rise to the challenge of Pope Francis?
Pope Francis has certainly created a new mood in the Church, a mood of optimism and hope. But his latest exhortation goes much further; it shows we have as pope a man who is determined that his period in the Vatican will be a time for more than just talk. It is clear now that there is a determination, almost a degree of impatience about him, like a man who realises that he hasn’t got an endless amount of time, and that the task is urgent and difficult.
It is also clear that his vision of Church is dramatically different from the two men who have gone before him, and that those who are still trying to say that Francis is in the direct line of Benedict and John Paul are becoming less credible. The simple life style, the constant calling for a poor Church, for a simple liturgy, the critique of the Curia, the challenge to the local churches to begin to take responsibility, all amounts to dramatic changes of direction from the papacy. Someone referred to his most recent encyclical as a charter for church reform.
The question that occupies me now is will the local churches rise to the challenge. Reading back over the history of the Second Vatican Council, it is clear that many new ideas and approaches were presented that would, if implemented, amount to a big change in pastoral approach, in governance, and even in interpretation of doctrine. But only a small part of it was ever put into practice because the local churches were not willing to take up the baton and move courageously into the future. John Charles McQuaid’s famous sentence when he came home from the Council that nothing had happened that would disturb the tranquillity of the faith of the people was a good illustration of the mentality that ultimately blocked change.
Everywhere I go nowadays people ask me what difference Francis will make to my future. As a 90-year-old woman said to me this morning, “you will soon be back with us again”. I am living in hope that situations like mine, and the other priests who have experienced the censure of the CDF, will not become examples of how the local church once again failed to take up the challenge.
Two recent examples give me reason to be afraid.
A couple of months ago, following the interview Pope Francis gave to the Jesuit magazine, in which he said that issues of censure would better be dealt with at local Church level, and where he criticised the Curia for listening to all the complaints of “unorthodoxy” that come to the Vatican, I wrote to my religious superiors asking if they would now take the authority into their own hands. And since no religious superior had ever objected to anything I had said or written at any stage throughout my life, I requested that I be returned to ministry. After a period of consultation they replied that they did not consider they had the necessary authority to do as I requested. A communication from our Superior General confirmed this, when he said that the only way forward was for me to give the CDF the statement they demanded. In other words, despite everything Francis had said, there was no change.
The second example is the Irish Episcopal response to the survey sent by the Vatican in mid-October, asking for a wide consultation with the people in preparation for the Synod on the Family next October. Apart from a few individual bishops, almost nothing has been done by the official Church in Ireland to make the survey available, and to seriously attempt to ascertain the views of the people. This is a really important moment. The Vatican is asking for the opinions of the faithful on topics that had been considered beyond debate. It is undoubtedly an initiative that has the touch of Francis all over it. And yet the Irish bishops are mostly failing to respond. It is hard to know why. Could it be fear, inertia or deliberately trying to stymie the initiative?
Pope Francis has an enormous task before him. He has repeatedly said that he thinks there should be an end to centralisation in the Church, and that the local Church should play a more active part in terms of the pastoral application of doctrine, the development of doctrine, and the governance of the Church. But how can he possibly achieve anything unless the local Church is willing to take that responsibility?
I have a deep sense of certainty that the Spirit is speaking powerfully through this man who became Pope against all the expectation and the odds. It will be a tragedy if we, in our local churches, fail to take up his challenge to be courageous and imaginative, to make difficult decisions and ‘get our hands dirty’, either through fear or inertia.
I believe that a decision to remove sanctions against the various priests who have been penalised in this country would be a significant first step in lifting the spirit and improving the morale of the Irish Church. It would signal that the era of fear and repression had ended, and that we could begin once more to breathe freely the joy of the Gospel. I also believe the Irish Church now has the authority to do it. Bishops and Religious Superiors need to take a stand.
In the words of Francis: “In our dealings with the world, we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns”.
Fr Tony Flannery is a member of the ACP Leadership Team (pro tem)