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Home : Viewpoints : Editorials
1/19/2014 10:29:00 AM
Winning friends and souls
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis greets a man as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 15.
Catholic News Service
Pope Francis greets a man as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 15.

Here is an unsigned editorial from the Jan. 2 issue of The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic weekly.

A valuable lesson Pope Francis has already taught the Catholic Church is that the imitation of Christ is the one sure way to win souls.

Since he arrived at the helm last spring he has hacked away at the accretions of wealth and power that the papacy had accumulated over centuries, cutting back to the essentials. He seems acutely aware of what it is about Catholicism that attracts and what it is that repels, the simple formula being that the more it points away from itself and toward Christ, the more convincing it is.

He has been named Man of the Year from various directions, but the one award he most deserves would be from the public relations industry for showing how to turn what is seen by many as a toxic brand into a winning one almost overnight.

The attraction is not purely to the man himself, but to what he stands for. So the process of reform he has initiated is not to make the church more Francis-like, but more Christ-like. The Gospel, he understands, cannot be preached by the rich and powerful to the poor and powerless -- even if the words are the right ones. The symbolism contradicts them. The Gospel needs integrity between message and messenger. Those whose preferred image of the Vatican is of a glorious Renaissance monarchy surrounded by a deferential Renaissance court are finding the transition back to authentic Christianity somewhat uncomfortable.

Yet he has not shed a single church teaching. His orthodoxy is impeccable. Clearly the church does not need to trim its doctrinal sails to regain respect. Nor did Christ: That is another lesson. It is impossible to label Pope Francis a progressive or a conservative because he is essentially both.

He makes it possible for those two schools to live harmoniously together in the one church. He is not an authoritarian -- indeed, he likes to subvert his own authority, telling any Catholics who receive a rebuke from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to stay calm and carry on.

There is no knowing where this journey will lead. If 2013 was the year of papal surprises, perhaps the biggest of all being the resignation through failing health of Pope Benedict XVI, then 2014 may well be no more predictable, maybe even less so. The role of the pope is being redefined. So, as a result of his leadership, are the roles of bishops, clergy and laity.

During 2014 Pope Francis will have to embark on the root-and-branch reform of the Vatican curial machinery that he clearly thinks is necessary, guided by the advice of the eight cardinals he has chosen as his special team of consulters.

Over the centuries the Catholic Church has acquired a vertical and pyramidal power structure, with graduated layers of hierarchical status from top to bottom. Pope Francis's example makes it possible to say that that might not be right: that far from being the church's defining characteristic, the very idea of a hierarchy of power is alien to the Gospel, just as is the idea that all that power should be exclusively in the hands of elderly male clerics.

What if collegiality was not only the right principle for the internal structure of the world episcopacy, as Pope Francis clearly believes, but also for organizing each diocese and parish? What reserves of spiritual energy might thereby be released?

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