The Francis Revolution: Over the past 10 years, the pope has recovered the church’s true power
The path was signposted at the start, but looking back after 10 years, it can be seen more clearly: Pope Francis has sought a transformation of the internal life and culture of the Catholic Church, at the heart of which is a conversion of power.
He announced it in the homily of his inaugural Mass on March 17, 2013, when he asked us never to forget that true power is service. He was referring at that moment to the power conferred on him as pope: to be inspired by “the lowly, concrete and faithful service” of St. Joseph, to protect the poor and care for creation. But as he has spent the past decade teaching and enabling, all true authority in the church is the participation in that same divine power. From Rome, through the college of bishops, and extending through the synods, to the whole church, the recovery of that divine power that serves has been the hallmark of his reform. And its fruits are visible.
Where not long ago the Vatican was notorious for its haughty manner, its centralism and its authoritarianism, there is now a climate of service and of freedom. The constant stream of directives issued without first engaging the parties affected has long since dried to a trickle; the few directives that the Vatican issues these days follow extensive, patient consultation. No longer does Rome use anonymous denunciations (“delations”) to discipline bishops, and it is hard to recall a single instance in the past decade where a theologian’s orthodoxy has been put on trial.
Where not long ago the Vatican was notorious for its haughty manner, its centralism and its authoritarianism, there is now a climate of service and of freedom.
Bishops from local churches on their ad limina visits to the Vatican are amazed now to find they are no longer treated as subordinates. Officials look visiting bishops in the eye, want to listen and help. Article 1 of the new apostolic constitution of the Roman Curia, “Praedicate Evangelium,” implemented last year, makes clear that the Curia “does not place itself between the pope and the bishops, but is at the full service of both,” facilitating an exchange of gifts between the local churches.
The Roman Curia no longer acts to block and control access to the pope, and the corruption that went with this gatekeeping role is history. Gone, too, are the powerful papal secretaries; Francis’ have such little profile most would be hard-pressed to name them. Under John Paul II the Roman bodies representing the world’s one million men and women religious, viewed with suspicion by the Vatican, were denied a meeting with the pope for more than 10 years. Now Francis’ meetings with the two international organizations that represent women religious and men religious (the U.S.G. and U.I.S.G., respectively) are so frequent they barely generate comment.
Papal governance is now not remote and impersonal but “collegial”—that is, in partnership with the college of bishops by means of regular consultations and free-flowing exchanges. The synod of bishops is no longer managed by the Curia to prevent open discussion and to censor questioning but has become an authentic mechanism of discernment. When Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in 1999 called for “a more universal and authoritative instrument” to tackle knotty doctrinal and pastoral issues, “in the full exercise of episcopal collegiality,” it is now clear that in the synod’s reincarnation this past decade Francis has created just that.
The structures and governance of the universal church now reflect better what Francis calls the “style of God”: graciousness, kindness and closeness. As he said in his inaugural Mass: “caring, protecting—these demand goodness; they call for a certain tenderness.” It is a major category error of the pope’s critics to see this more vulnerable kind of authority as weakness or loss of nerve. It is a mark of the true strength of the church to rely not on potestas—power over—but the ministerium of divine power.
The structures and governance of the universal church now reflect better what Francis calls the “style of God”: graciousness, kindness and closeness.
These and many other changes signal not merely a reform of governance but a shift in agency: from a semi-Pelagian trust in the power of law to a new confidence in the power of the Spirit. Unity is no longer imposed through the coercion of uniformity, but is the gift that flows from communion, which is enabled by a culture of reciprocity and mutual listening. (Where juridical acts have been necessary—Pope Francis’ 2020 regulation of the Traditional Latin Mass springs to mind—it is to place boundaries that defend that culture.) Francis in “Praedicate Evangelium” is explicit that the reform is to recover “the experience of missionary communion lived by the Apostles with the Lord while He was on earth, and, following Pentecost, in the first community of Jerusalem under the effect of the Holy Spirit.”
A new constitution for the Diocese of Rome—which the pope governs directly, as its bishop—gives a glimpse of what this might mean in concrete terms in the local church. “In Ecclesiarium Communione,” published in early January, speaks of a missionary conversion in a Samaritan key that enables the church to better perform the mercy and charity of God, requiring a synodal conversion that involves the active participation of all the baptized. This calls, in turn, for a range of consultative bodies at all levels, with every parish having a pastoral council, and as many as possible taking part in processes of decision-making involving processes of discernment.
Unity is no longer imposed through the coercion of uniformity, but is the gift that flows from communion, which is enabled by a culture of reciprocity and mutual listening.
It is to enable the church to live in this way ever more under the effect of the Spirit that Pope Francis in October 2021 called the three-year global Synod on Synodality. Even now, at its halfway point, it is clear that the experience of deep mutual listening has been transformative for many of those taking part, awakening a desire among the faithful for greater responsibility and participation in the life and mission of the church. The declericalization of authority, in such a way that leadership and ministry in the church can be better rooted in charisms, is already underway in the Vatican, where laypeople, as well as religious women, are occupying significant executive roles.
By rooting authority in a careful listening to the Spirit made known in the lived faith of ordinary people, the synod is giving expression to what St. John Henry Newman called the “breathing together of faithful and pastors,” one that allows the Spirit to truly guide the church. It is a striking thought that, whenever the next conclave takes place, the cardinals will elect the next pope aware that, via this unprecedented assembly of the people of God, the Spirit has spoken to the church in our time.
One of the signs that the transformation is taking hold is the increasingly strident resistance it is provoking. The opposition to Francis throughout his pontificate has been at its most intense and ferocious precisely in his reform of authority and governance, and notably in and around the synods. There is a new willingness in the Catholic Church, modeled by Pope Francis, to hold its disagreements in fruitful tension, allowing the Spirit to show new paths forward that transcend those divisions. This way of proceeding causes fear and anger in those seeking the apparent securities of an imagined past. They must be listened to respectfully, and their fears appreciated. But as Pope Francis understands, the church can only evangelize today’s world using “God’s style” if the medium is not to undermine the message. The church’s true authority lies in its sharing in God’s power, which is always expressed in humble service. It is among Francis’ greatest achievements that after 10 years we are able not just to understand this, but to see it in action.
Look for a special “deep dive” episode of America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast for the 10th anniversary of Francis’ election. Go to americamagazine.org/podcasts.