Pope Francis and Reform - the Question of Jonah....

Pope Francis wears a Pectoral Cross embossed with one of the earliest iconographical images of Christianity: that of the Good Shepherd (seen above in the centre). His instincts that take him to the roots of the Catholic Faith can be seen in the use he makes of another powerful iconic image of the early Christians, that of the prophet Jonah (on the right).


Pope Francis hasn't written much so it is not easy to fore guess his thoughts about reforming the Curia. But there are clues. Take this extract from a 2007 interview in the magazine '30 Days':

"Jonah had everything clear. He had clear ideas about God, very clear ideas about good and evil. On what God does and on what He wants, on who was faithful to the Covenant and who instead was outside the Covenant. He had the recipe for being a good prophet. God broke into his life like a torrent. He sent him to Nineveh. Nineveh was the symbol of all the separated, the lost, of all the peripheries of humanity. Of all those who are outside, forlorn. Jonah saw that the task set on him was only to tell all those people that the arms of God were still open, that the patience of God was there and waiting, to heal them with His forgiveness and nourish them with His tenderness. Only for that had God sent him. He sent him to Nineveh, but he instead ran off in the opposite direction, toward Tarshish". 

"Running away from a difficult mission…" said the interviewer.

"No. What he was fleeing was not so much Nineveh as the boundless love of God for those people. It was that that didn’t come into his plans. God had come once… 'and I’ll see to the rest': that’s what Jonah told himself. He wanted to do things his way, he wanted to steer it all. His stubbornness shut him in his own structures of evaluation, in his pre-ordained methods, in his righteous opinions. He had fenced his soul off with the barbed wire of those certainties that instead of giving freedom with God and opening horizons of greater service to others had finished by deafening his heart. How the isolated conscience hardens the heart! Jonah no longer knew that God leads His people with the heart of a Father".

"A great many of us can identify with Jonah", the interviewer remarked.

Bergoglio: "Our certainties can become a wall, a jail that imprisons the Holy Spirit. Those who isolate their conscience from the path of the people of God don’t know the joy of the Holy Spirit that sustains hope. That is the risk run by the isolated conscience. Of those who from the closed world of their Tarshish complain about everything or, feeling their identity threatened, launch themselves into battles only in the end to be still more self-concerned and self-referential".

"What should one do?"

Bergoglio: "Look at our people not for what they should be but for what they are and see what is necessary. Without preconceptions and recipes but with generous openness. For the wounds and the frailty God have spoken. Allowing the Lord to speak… In a world that we can’t manage to interest with the words we say, only His presence that loves us, saves us, can be of interest. Apostolic fervor renews itself in order to testify to Him who has loved us from the beginning".

Last question: "For you, then, what is the worst thing that can happen in the Church?"

Bergoglio: "It is what De Lubac calls 'spiritual worldliness'. It is the greatest danger for the Church, for us, who are in the Church. 'It is worse', says De Lubac, 'more disastrous than the infamous leprosy that disfigured the dearly beloved Bride at the time of the libertine popes'. Spiritual worldliness is putting oneself at the center. It is what Jesus saw going on among the Pharisees: 'You who glorify yourselves. Who give glory to yourselves, the ones to the others'".

It has been mentioned that the Pope mentioned the phrase 'worldliness' several times in his address to the cardinals. Perhaps we have hear, then, some glimpse as to what sort of reform the Holy Father will initiate within the curia, a reform that will, possibly, have a big impact upon the wider Church. It is a reform of motivation, a reform to cut away the dross that grows around those who spend too long in corridors of power, seated at the tables of the powerful, who spend their days compromised with little luxuries, the touch of silk, the invitations to banquets, the freedom to indulge in one's own opinions, the ever so corrosive environment where you never carry your own bags, never travel besides ordinary people, never breathe beyond the walls of the ecclesiastical world. 

He continues in the same article to share some of the thoughts he wanted to express to the consistory of that year which through ill health he was unable to attend:

"In itself everything that leads by the paths of God is good. I have told my priests: 'Do everything you should, you know your duties as ministers, take your responsibilities and then leave the door open.' Our sociologists of religion tell us that the influence of a parish has a radius of six hundred meters. In Buenos Aires there are about two thousand meters between one parish and the next. So I then told the priests: 'If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him.' A parish priest said to me: 'But Father, if we do this the people then won’t come to Church.' 'But why?' I asked him: 'Do they come to Mass now?' 'No,' he answered. And so! Coming out of oneself is also coming out from the fenced garden of one’s own convictions, considered irremovable, if they risk becoming an obstacle, if they close the horizon that is also of God.

Q: This is valid also for lay people…

A: Their clericalization is a problem. The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission by virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness.

This is a pope who believes in trusting all to God, and trusting in those God entrusts Himself to. He is not afraid, not shrinking behind the walls of an institution of great antiquity and power. He doesn't see the laity and priests as 'them' and 'us' but as a single body entrusted with the Gospel of mercy which is something to be lived and shared. I don't think this sounds like a man who will ring his hands because their are fewer men in the seminary, not a man who will relax the rules of celibacy to meet that thirst for priests. 

This is because he doesn't think the Church will fail because it doesn't have many priests. He does think the Church will falter if it has worldly priests.Thus, we can expect, I would guess, that he will stress more the dynamism of mission within the parish communities, especially with regards to an effective reaching out to those who many priests are, quite frankly, baffled by or scared of, the people who don't believe, and don't behave as they expect.

For example, in an article in the Guardian, one of his priests Gustavo Carrara, of the Saint Mary, Mother of the People Church,  explains "He understands the problems here ...Through his career he has always been close to the poor," said Carrara, who was ordained by Bergoglio. "He used to come and give mass and speak at ceremonies, such as the openings of the Home of Christ [a drug rehabilitation centre]." During his time as archbishop, he doubled the number of priests in the slums. 

He has already said as much to the Cardinals at his first meeting with them the day after his election:
"Let us never give in to pessimism and discouragement, we have the firm conviction that the Holy Spirit gives the Church, with its mighty breath, the courage to persevere and also to look for new methods of evangelization, to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. " Christian truth, reiterated Pope Francis, "is attractive and persuasive because it responds to the deep need of human existence, announcing convincingly that Christ is the only Savior of the whole man and of all men."

I think we can see that his confidence is rooted in a faith that believe God has already provided all that is necessary, and that he is just a very small worker in the vineyard whose job is simply to listen to God, and to respond as faithfully as he can without making a big fuss about himself. And that means people who do think a lot about themselves, their likes, opinions, positions are going to get short shrift because they entangle everyone else in dead ends, confusions, bickering, intrigues, encourage people to think the worst of others, undermine cooperation, stand on ceremony to establish their own territories thus breaking and dividing people up, and so forth. Those who use the Church for their own power will get short shrift.

There is evidence for this in his approach to reform of the finances of his own archdiocese. As Vicar General he seemingly asked that every parish declare the properties etc that it owned. Those at the finance office didn't exactly cooperate enthusiastically, and preferred the old system of obfuscation and opaque dealings. When he was finally elevated to be Archbishop, those responsible we dismissed.

There is also a story going around, unverified as far as I can tell, that Cardinal Law, previously of the infamous diocese of Boston, heard that the Pope was at Sancta Maria Maggiore where he was, until recently, dean and where he still lives in a grace and favour apartment. Whether he was summoned or he sought the pope out, it seems the pope met him, they spoke briefly, and the pope then or at some point afterwards instructed that the said cardinal was no longer to reside at the church and was to retire to prayer and penance. Maybe apocryphal, but it has the sort of edge to it that would not be totally out of sorts with exactly the sort of principles and action he has taken before.

In this we can see, I think, a deeper instinct which draws the Holy Father back to the well springs of the Church during its earliest days, when its mission, self-sacrifice, poverty and authenticity were at its more explosive and convincing, a time when literally the Church took the world by storm, converted it through a heroic love lived out in a world hostile to its existence and more to the message of love and life it brought. 

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