To all the doubters, who asked whether Pope Francis would prove to be all style and no substance, the answer is in. This highly popular, innovative pope means business. For sure, he is the master of both grand and spontaneous gestures. His request for prayers before his first blessing was a grand public gesture; so was his bathing the feet of a Muslim woman. His embrace of the sorely disfigured man in Saint Peter’s Square was a spontaneous expression of love, but even that was so evidently wholehearted that it wiped out any thought it was done just for show. Even his gestures are done decisively.
When he refused to wear the red mozzetta, a relic of imperial Rome, and handed off the ornate stole worn by previous popes for public events, he told the startled attendant, “The carnival is over.” When he chose to do the Holy Thursday foot washing in a prison, aides told him, “No, it is always done at Saint John Lateran,” Rome’s cathedral. He responded, “I am washing feet in the prison.” He has counselors and confidants, but very few are Vatican professionals. He makes his own decisions and is reshaping the papacy in dramatic ways.
Here are four ways in which Pope Francis has shown he means business: 1) His choice of advisers; 2) institutional renewal and innovation; 3) decisiveness in his governing; and 4) setting the Gospel as priority over moral crusades.
Choice of Advisers
The pope has proven himself an outstanding judge of people. For key positions he has chosen men (sadly, no women yet) who, even if they have risen in the system, are not of it. Pietro Parollin, the Secretary of State, is a modest, gentle man, a good listener, an effective administrator and an effective diplomat. He models the kind of servant leadership Francis has urged on bishops. What his role will be in a re-organized curia remains unclear, but his personality, spirituality and his proven talent suit him to implementing the Franciscan reform.
Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the cardinal archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, is the coordinator of the Council of Cardinals advising the pope on curial reform and church governance. He is a genial pastoral innovator who thinks in big terms and doesn’t let ecclesiocrats blunt a needed pastoral initiative. In the late 90s under Pope John Paul II, he led the world church’s efforts to role back third-world debt as part of the Great Jubilee. At the Synod for America (1997-99), when he learned about the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Boston priests who committed themselves to work in Latin America, he proposed that Latin American churches send priests to accompany immigrants to the U.S. When the Synod failed to endorse the proposal, he set up a program in his own archdiocese and made it open to priests and seminarians from all over the region.
More recently, he was heavily involved in the Synod on the Word of God (2008-10), especially in promotion of lectio divina (the spiritual reading of scripture). He was heavily involved in promoting the results of the synod in its document Verbum Domini. After the synod downplayed lectio for the liturgical celebration of the Word, understanding the importance of scripture in a region where Evangelicals are a significant presence, he joined with the American Bible Society in promoting programs to spread the practice and publish bibles in which suggestions for lectio are included.
If you want to innovate in the reform of the church, Rodriquez is the clear choice among the cardinals to take on the hard jobs for the pope. He has also become the counter-voice to Cardinal Ludwig Mueller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in instances when Mueller has tried to discount pastoral issues Pope Francis has lifted up for the church’s attention, like communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Thirdly, there is the lone American in the council of cardinals, Boston’s Capuchin archbishop Sean O’Malley. O’Malley, a friend of the Holy Father, speaks Spanish and Portuguese, and began his priesthood working in Hispanic ministry. He has a modest, humble demeanor, and, like Pope Francis, he loves the poor and models living gospel poverty in his own life.
But, within the council, Cardinal O’Malley is probably the expert on clergy sex abuse, having cleaned up the disasters left by his predecessors in several dioceses. If anything takes humility, it is repeatedly cleaning up after other people’s mistakes. The sex abuse crisis is the outstanding challenge Pope Francis has yet seriously to address. When time comes to do so, O’Malley will have experience and wisdom to share.
Among long term Vatican personnel, the pope has also chosen to rely on veterans of proven quality: Jean-Louis Tauran, the former foreign minister and president of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Walter Kasper, the former president of the Congregation for Promoting Christian Unity. When Pope Francis replaced most of the cardinals supervising the Vatican Bank, Cardinal Tauran was re-appointed. When it came to discussing with the cardinals issues of the family in advance of this spring’s synod, he chose Cardinal Kasper, a theologian of international standing.
Kasper’s two-hour lecture related how the fathers of the Church dealt with the problem of divorced and remarried Catholics, not without objection from some of the assembled cardinals. Afterwards the pope told the press he wanted to stimulate discussion.
Institutional Renewal and Innovation
From the beginning Pope Francis made clear he wanted to make good on Vatican II’s reform agenda by revivifying the Synod of Bishops. How exactly the renewed synod will be restructured as a deliberative rather than a consultative body remains to be seen. But Francis has already made some innovations to its operations by distributing widely the pre-questionnaire in advance of the synod’s meeting and by dividing the sitting of the synod into two sessions.
The Vatican made known it wanted the questionnaire to be shared with the faithful and that everyone’s responses were welcome. In the past, only bishops and their handpicked advisers were consulted. That was still the case in some places, but in many others bishops followed up on the pope’s invitation and made public the findings. Some bishops and some conferences of bishops even informed their people of the dissonance between convictions and behavior of church members and the official teaching of the church.
Furthermore, the division of the Synod on the Family into two sessions, this year and next, gives bishops time before the second session to discuss the conclusions of the first session and possible futures with their people in advance of the synod’s laying out a program of action.
The hiatus also serves many of the goals of Francis’ papal ministry, among them: to promote dialogue and participation at all levels within the church and to let church teaching emerge from the sensus fidelium. In the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” and elsewhere, Pope Francis has raised to new prominence the teaching of the Council that the teaching of bishops rests on the shared belief of the faithful, a proposition essential to reviving the church as one People of God and giving substance to the often empty-sounding assertion that the church is more than its hierarchy.
At a practical level, another innovation is the hiring of outside management consultants to advise the Vatican on streamlining its operations. An edict to the curial offices a couple of weeks ago freezing hiring, not filling open positions and forbidding overtime seemed to be calculated to force out the dead wood and end favoritism and low performance, seems to have been the work of these outside consultants. The cuts didn’t extend to the Vatican City State, where Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano had tried to bring about reforms, only to be exiled to the U.S. as nuncio. But, if the pope can take the bus to his annual retreat later this week, reforms in the civil government of the Vatican shouldn’t be far behind.
Next time: Francis’ decisiveness and the priority of the Gospel over moral crusades.
Drew Christiansen, S. J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University. He is former editor of America.