The Great Reformer: Pope Francis’s Pastoral Revolution, Two Years On

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by Austen Iveriegh

While in Dublin recently, I stopped by the Jesuit community at Milltown to meet a man who had once taught Scripture in a huge college outside Buenos Aires, which was at that time run by the man who is now pope.

Father James Kelly recalls the regime at the Colegio Maximo in the early 1980s with awe, but with mixed feelings. “I had never seen anything like it,” he told me. It was intense, austere and insular, but deeply rooted in spiritual discipline and a focused pastoral action aimed at raising the lives of the poor.

Not only did Bergoglio have a clear vision, said Father Kelly, but he was “dynamic enough to put it into practice.”

The regime at the Maximo – as Francis himself confessed in an interview after becoming pope – was authoritarian. Father Kelly describes it as “monolithic.” But it was also – as I describe in my biography of Pope Francis – compelling, exciting and deeply attractive to a whole generation of new vocations that filled the colegio.

Over the years, Father Kelly has thought often about Bergoglio’s vision – the intense prayer and pastoral focus at the college – and reflected that “maybe there was truth in what he was doing.”

Sure, there was too little freedom, and it was too dependent on the charisma of one extraordinary leader. Yet despite its faults, at a time when the Society of Jesus worldwide was struggling, he believes, Bergoglio “had the vision that others were forgetting.”

What was that vision? “Everything was encased in this spiritual framework,” the Irish Jesuit recalls. In much of the Church at the time – and particularly among the Jesuits – the social came first: the yardstick to measure your Christianity was your commitment to changing unjust structures. For Bergoglio, on the other hand, “the social had to flow from the religious.”

Bergoglio thus disagreed with the Jesuits’ decision in the mid-1970s to make the “promotion of justice” an “absolute requirement” of their mission. The decree decided at the 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuit order meant that justice – in a purely political sense – could become the yardstick of their action, rather than the Gospel. The risk was that religion would be at the service of ideology, that salvation would come through politics and Jesuits become indistinguishable from social activists, forgetting their priestly calling.

This was the point on which Bergoglio clashed with older members of the Province, and explains the insularity of the Argentine Jesuits under Bergoglio from the Society of Jesus worldwide.

Twenty years later, when Bergoglio was the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he played a key role in the redaction of the great Latin-American Church document at Aparecida, Brazil, which is now in effect the programme for the universal Church.

Those who attended that gathering of the Latin-American bishops’ council (CELAM) recall how at the start of the deliberations delegates wanted to begin with an analysis of contemporary realities, using the traditional see-judge-act method. Bergoglio had no problem with the method, but objected that there was no such thing as an objective, disengaged observation – how were they going to look at reality? Eventually the delegates agreed that the optic was that of “missionary disciples” moved by “the love received from the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit,” as the document put it.

Recalling that delicate moment in July 2013, Pope Francis told CELAM leaders in Rio de Janeiro that “there has been a temptation present in the Church from the beginning: the attempt to interpret the Gospel apart from the Gospel itself and apart from the Church.” When religious people do that, they fall into what – citing Henri de Lubac – Francis calls “spiritual worldliness.”

The warning against that temptation – “the most perfidious” that faces the Church, de Lubac warns – runs like a thread from Bergoglio’s early writings as a Jesuit, through his addresses as Cardinal Archbishop, to the many paragraphs of Francis’s great exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Spiritual worldliness manifests itself in closed elite groups obsessed with their own rules, or with abstract ideas rather than concrete realities. At its worst, it leads to the “spiritual sicknesses” Francis listed to Vatican bureaucrats before Christmas: clericalism, careerism and cliquism.

Spiritual worldliness always has one, devastating effect: it turns the Church inward rather than outward, and thereby kills its capacity to evangelize. It causes the Church to become grim, sad and defensive. As Cardinal Bergoglio told the Cardinals on the eve of his election two years ago, such a Church ceases to be the mysterium lunae, reflecting the light of Christ as the moon reflects the light of the sun, but attempts to live from its own light, and becomes bent over, crippled, inward-focused. “The self-referential Church presumes to keep Christ for itself and not to let him out,” he told the Cardinals. Just months earlier, at a retreat he gave in Buenos Aires in December 2012, he used an even more startling image: “We have Jesus tied up,” he said, “and we don’t let him leave.”

To the Cardinals on the eve of the conclave, he presented a choice between “the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself” or a Church that comes out of itself, geared to mission and focused on the existential peripheries, one that lives from what the Blessed Paul VI called “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

He was very clear, at those pre-conclave meetings two years ago, what the new pope should do: the choice he had distilled, he told the Cardinals, “should give rise to the possible changes and reforms that have to be carried out for the salvation of souls.” That was his mandate: not reform and change for the sake of modernization, efficiency or transparency, but “for the salvation of souls.”

The objective of Francis’s reform is a pastoral revolution by placing the Church on a missionary footing, “so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation,” as he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium. The document then goes on to spell out what he called “the renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion.”

Pastoral conversion is the criterion of all true Church reform, as the Jesuit Bergoglio imbibed in the 1960s from his deep reading of Yves Congar. For the Dominican theologian, looking back over Church history to discern why some Church reform produces great fruits of holiness and unity while other movements derail and split the Christian body, true reform is always pastoral in intent: its purpose is the salus animarum, the spiritual good of God’s people.

Hence, as rector of Colegio Maximo in the 1980s, Bergoglio’s injunction to his Jesuit students was first to evangelize – “You had to be immersed in the parish, get them to Mass on Sundays, and expand from there,” is how Father Kelly recalls the idea. From entering into the lives of the poor came the schools and projects that dignify their lives. But the spiritual comes first. (As Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium, “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is lack of spiritual care.”)

All true reform, in other words, aims to bring people into deeper relationship with God, through prayer, sacraments, formation and parish life. A reform whose purpose is to “modernize” (or “democratize”) the Church, or make the Church more acceptable to the world, is a sure indication that ideology, not the Gospel, is in play – despite the seeming “Christian” language in which it is adorned.

True, pastoral reform, on the other hand, always takes for granted Catholic doctrine and tradition; it does not question the Eucharist, or devotion to the saints, a hierarchical magisterium, or a male priesthood. Francis has shown himself, despite hopes or fears to the contrary, a stalwart defender of core Catholic traditions and doctrines. But he is also passionate about breaking down the walls keeping people away from the Church. That means showing – as he has constantly done – that God’s saving love precedes any moral or religious obligation on our part; that truth is never imposed, but appeals to our freedom; and that, above all, faith brings fullness of life and joy.

It also means unlocking the channels that prevent grace from flowing freely – most obviously, that of marriage and family. The tragedy of the contemporary Church in the West is that it has relied on culture to teach Catholics the meaning of marriage, when culture has lost that meaning; the result is decades of Catholics not marrying or divorcing, staying away from Church and taking their children with them. Because the family is the main transmitter of faith and religious practice, the result has been a rapid shrinking of Church participation.

Francis wants to reverse that cycle, not just by galvanizing the Church to prepare and support future marriages, but also to open paths back to the parishes for those currently alienated by marriage. He believes that solutions can be found that do not undermine the witness to indissolubility. And to those who refuse to consider such a possibility, he lays a sharp challenge: do they care more about preserving the saved or saving the lost?

Francis’s reforms are not about a change in Church teaching, but a shift in focus: from a defensive concern with preserving truth from threat of secularism, to an active concern to reinstate those marginalised from God’s saving love. And he believes that, through the Synod of Bishops on the Family – a protected space that allows the Holy Spirit to act – creative answers will emerge that help to unblock those channels, filling the churches again.

Congar’s other criterion of authentic Church reform was that it involves the centre opening to the periphery of poverty and need, where spiritual worldliness is less of a temptation and the suffering Christ is closer. As Cardinal, Bergoglio sought to evangelise Buenos Aires from the margins: from the shanty towns and the prisons, from the shrines and the hospitals. As pope, Francis is converting the universal Church by allowing to be shaped by the local and pastoral realities of the diocesan Church – which is why he has appointed Cardinals from small, poor, far-flung places rather than major cities, and entrusted the restructuring of the Curia to senior Cardinals from outside Rome. It is also why, in the summer, he will publish his most important teaching document to date: a call to care for the planet by placing those worst affected by climate change – the poorest people in the developing world – front and centre.

Two years into his papacy, the commentators are drawing up the balance sheet. The financial reforms have been decisive and epoch-changing, but the curial restructuring is proving complex and slow. Evaluating Francis’s attempts to reset the Church on a missionary footing, meanwhile, is not easy to do: is the “Francis effect” a superficial media fascination, or a new springtime? The pope remains wildly popular, but he has strong critics, as all popes do, and they are getting more vociferous as Francis challenges their comfort zones. The Synod concludes this October without, as yet, any clear sign of convergence on key issues, although important signs of consensus on topics such as annulment reform are just as apparent.

Francis – the great unblocker, reformer and bridge-builder of our age – does not seem worried. Those close to him report a man often exhausted and yet at peace, confident in God’s actions, however invisible they may be in the present moment. His task has been to open up a new era for the Church, in which the vigorous missionary energy and option for the poor of Latin American Catholicism becomes the wellspring of the conversion of the Church worldwide.

That process has barely begun, but the direction is clear. Where it will lead is not easy to say, and the signs of success not easy to agree on. But nobody can say it has been, for a moment, dull. Francis, two years into his electrifying pontificate, remains one of the most compelling evangelisers of the Church of any age, whose fierce determination to release Christ from the bonds of our worldliness shows no sign of waning.

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