Hang onto your hats for 2014: it may be a bumpy ride
Pope Francis: Man of the Year, 2014?
In the slipstream between the old year and the new, Pope Francis was
designated the Time magazine Man of the Year. For some, the ultimate
accolade. For all, a breath-taking example of the way one individual can
single-handed change perceptions, even of vast institutions like the Roman
At the end of last year it seemed almost as if the Church, like a vast
brocade, was gradually unravelling at the seams, as the problems piled high
on the desk of the hapless Benedict XVI. With his health deteriorating, the
Church divided and the Vatican in uproar, he decided on a strategy that was
to give new life to the Church he loved. He retired. History may well regard
it as his greatest hour.
What’s beginning to look progressively like a revolution came from an
unlikely source – the assembled cardinals at the ensuing conclave in Rome. A
change of direction, they agreed, was necessary and that became the
unspoken, semi-official position. The person chosen to deliver it was an
unlikely 76-year-old, mildly eccentric (by Vatican standards), an astute and
personable Argentinian who delighted in telling everyone he was a sinner.
Little did we think, nine months ago, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio emerged
blinking into the Roman night on the balcony of St Peter’s that we were at
the beginning of an unlikely revolution in attitude in the Catholic church.
After a long winter of discontent, spanning two papacies and almost four
decades, suddenly the prospect of a new dawn was upon us. After all the
efforts to block the reforms envisaged at the Second Vatican Council
(Vatican Two), after all the efforts to stifle debate on key pastoral
issues, after all the efforts to return the Church to the nineteenth
century, after all the trampling over all our dreams, we couldn’t quite
believe it was happening.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, unpredictably, there came from the pampas of South
America, a knight on a white horse, wearing a white soutane and sporting a
white zucchetto (the cap-een) perched on his head at a rakish angle, to
rescue the Church from the dark cul-de-sacs of history and to point it
towards the light of promise and possibility.
Suddenly, again, the core of the Gospel – the love and mercy of God revealed
to us in Jesus Christ – became more important than, for example, sexual
moral teaching and the political campaigns, waged not wisely but too well,
against abortion, contraception, homosexuality. Suddenly, after years in a
dense forest, it was as if we found ourselves in a great clearance. A new
dawn had broken. A new beginning beckoned us into a new and different
A real difficulty is comprehending the immensity of the change in direction
and attitude. Could the reign of control and negativism that characterised
the half-century since Vatican Two be coming to an end?
The supporters of Benedict can’t bring themselves to believe it, as they run
around wondering what has happened to their secure, unchanging Church. A
distressed email I received recently from an anonymous reader makes the
point: ‘Why does this particular pope believe he has the right to open up
Christ’s teachings for renegotiation and consultation?’
People like myself who have been banging on for more than thirty years in
this column about the need for the freedom and space to allow Vatican Two to
reap its due harvest can’t quite believe it either. Another recent email I
received asked: ‘Are you also a scriptwriter for Pope Francis? I thought you
just wrote for the Western People. Then I read Evangelii Gaudium and wondered.
Maybe he’s a regular reader of the Western?’
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) can’t quite believe it too. Three
years ago the ACP were personae non grata with the official Church to such a
degree that the Apostolic Visitors from Rome who investigated what was wrong
with the Catholic Church in Ireland came to the conclusion that part of the
problem was ‘dissident priests’! Yet in the space of six short months the
ACP went from being derided and ridiculed for our radical platform of reform
to the sudden reality that Pope Francis was singing from the same hymn-sheet
as the ACP and stealing all our best lines. Suddenly almost everything we
had wished for was now on the table as Francis announced that the reforms of
Vatican Two hadn’t been implemented and we needed to get on with it.
More than nine months after his election as pope, it’s gradually dawning
that this isn’t a mirage (after so long in the desert) but the only game in
town. And it’s happening already. Pope Francis is an old man in a hurry and
he’s not wasting whatever time he has.
He isn’t just sending signals – the Ford Focus instead of the papal
limousine, refusing to live in the papal palace, celebrating his recent
birthday with four homeless people, and so on. He’s working to a plan which
he has spelt out in detail in his interview with the Jesuit press and
through his recent ‘exhortation’. And no one is in any doubt now that he
intends to introduce systematic reform in our Church and that he is prepared
to face the inevitable opposition, like replacing the Latin Mass sponsor,
Cardinal Raymond Burke, as a member of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops
with a more pastoral bishop.
So, for 2014, hang on to your hats as this may be a bumpy ride. Francis has
created a new optimism and given new hope to a Church that had lost its
Vatican Two compass and in the process he’s created hugh possibilities for
reform. At a wider level he has also mesmerised the world by his humanity
and the joy that seem to radiate from the very core of his being. Time Man
of the Year for 2014?