Pope Francis and the reform of the Church, The Anchor, April 12, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Out Into The Deep
April 12, 2013

2013, Column, Putting into the Deep, The Anchor

Both before and after the election of Pope Francis, there has been much talk about the reform of the Vatican. Francis gave some witness that reform was on the mind of the cardinals who elected him when he joked with journalists on March 16 that some had suggested he take the name “Adrian” after Adrian VI, a pope who ferociously reformed the Church’s central administration after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

But the reform that Francis seems intent on carrying out will be much broader than a reform of the Vatican curia. What needs to be fixed in the Vatican, he recognizes, is just one symptom of a much larger problem plaguing the Church as a whole.

To re-form means to bring something back into the shape it ought to have and Francis is already at work, in his words and in his personal witness, at trying to lead that much more important, and widespread, renewal.

Four days before his election, he gave an address in the cardinals’ general congregation meetings that several of them noted totally changed the dynamics of the conclave. It got many of them to think that not only this cardinal “from the end of the earth” diagnosed profoundly the fundamental corruption afflicting the Church but also had the vision and the passion to lead the Church back to shape.

What did he say was the reform the Church most needed? Thanks to the work of Cardinal Jaime Ortega of Havana, we know. The Cuban cardinal was so impressed by what Cardinal Bergoglio had said that he asked if he could have a copy of his address. Cardinal Bergoglio replied that he had spoken without notes and apologized for having nothing to give him.

During the night, however, Cardinal Bergoglio decided to write out for his confrère what he had said earlier — clearly a sign of his charity — and gave the hand-written copy to a grateful Cardinal Ortega when he saw him in the morning. Cardinal Ortega asked if he could have it published, and the Argentine prelate consented. A few days later, after Pope Francis’ election, Cardinal Ortega asked him the same question again, now that they had obviously taken on larger significance. Pope Francis agreed and the handwritten sheets were published in Palabra Nueva, the Catholic magazine of the Archdiocese of Havana.

Cardinal Bergoglio told the cardinals that the Church exists and is impelled by Jesus to evangelize, to come out of herself and go to the ends of the earth — not just geographically but also to those at the periphery of existence, who are alienated from God and others through sin, pain, injustice, ignorance, ideology, material and spiritual poverty, and other types of misery.

When those in the Church lose this “apostolic zeal,” when the Church doesn’t come out of herself to bring Christ to others, she becomes self-referential and sick. “The evils that over the course of time happen in ecclesial institutions,” he said, “have their root in a self-reference and a sort of theological narcissism. The self-referent Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let Him come out.”

The chief corruption of the Church, he underlined, happens when she becomes narcissistic, when she starts looking at herself rather than looking toward God and toward others Jesus came from Heaven and died to save.

We saw this corruption among the Apostles who on several occasions began to focus on jockeying for position in an earthly kingdom they presumed Jesus had come to inaugurate rather than on denying themselves, picking up their cross and follow Jesus to all those on the periphery.

We’ve seen it throughout Church history when some have fought more for benefices and sinecures than for the towel to wash others’ feet.

We see it in certain segments of the Roman Curia when high-ranking prelates use their positions to try to find spots to advance the career of friends.

And we see it in Church institutions — dioceses, parishes, schools, hospitals, charities — that begin to focus all of their efforts on those who are already coming, rather than getting outside of themselves to serve all those for whom Jesus gave His life.

“When the Church is self-referent without realizing it,” Cardinal Bergoglio went on to say, “she believes she has her own light. She ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very great evil which is spiritual worldliness (which according to [the great 20th-century theologian Cardinal Henri] De Lubac, is the worst evil that can come upon the Church). The self-referent Church lives to give glory only to one another.”

Several fathers of the early Church used to refer to the Church as the mysterium lunae, the “mystery of the moon,” because the Church was called to reflect the light of Christ in the same way that the moon is illuminated by reflecting the light of the sun.

Cardinal Bergoglio was saying that when the Church becomes corrupt, spiritually worldly and in need of reform, those in the Church begin to think that the Church gives off her own light, rather than is meant to reflect Christ. The Church ceases to some extent to think, speak, behave and love like Christ, but rather begins to think and speak of herself, as if she is an end in herself. From the parish level to the Vatican Curia, she begins to focus more on her institutional make-up than her Founder, Origin, Guide and Goal.

The fundamental choice that the Church must make, he said, is whether we are going to be an “evangelizing Church that comes out of herself,” hearing the Word of God and faithfully proclaiming it, or a “worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself.” That distinction — and the importance of choosing the former —“must give light to the possible changes and reforms that must be made for the salvation of souls.”

He then gave what he believed were the essential job qualifications for the next pope, qualities that the other cardinals evidently thought he met: “The next pope,” he declared, must be a man who “from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worshiping Jesus Christ will help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence.”

That is what Pope Francis has been trying to do, going from his intense relationship with Christ out to those on the periphery, kissing children and the handicapped, washing the feet of incarcerated teens, wading into the crowds, paying his own bills, calling the man who used to deliver his newspaper and so many other similar actions.

He’s also been refusing to allow the Church he’s now been summoned to lead to be self-referential and narcissistically boxed in by “small-t” traditions of what clothes and shoes the pope wears, the place where he lives or celebrates Mass, the people whose feet he bathes, the schedule he keeps and the people he meets.

The fundamental corruption of the Vatican curia, where it exists, is not about butlers’ stealing papal documents, questionable financial practices, lavender mafias, or bureaucratic inefficiency. It’s about focusing too much on self-referential institutional concerns and too little on having all parts of the institution participate fully in the Church’s evangelical mission, in reflecting Christ’s light to illumine a world walking in darkness.

Pope Francis is seeking to lead the entire Church — not only priests and curial officials, but the faithful everywhere — on a spiritual exodus.

“It’s key that we Catholics, both clergy and laity, go out to meet the people,” he stressed in the 2010 book-length interview, El Jesuita. This is “not only because the Church’s mission is to announce the Gospel, but because failing to do so harms us. A Church that limits herself to administering parish work, that lives enclosed within a community, experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.” A Church that merely protects its small flock, that gives all or most of its attention to its faithful clientele, he believes, “is a Church that is sick.”

He’s made the diagnosis and given the prescription the Church needs. Now it’s time for the entire Church to take the medicine that will bring us back to health so that we can go out as ministers of the Divine Physician to heal the world.