Call to Conversion

Pope Francis is calling everyone in the church to conversion, especially cardinals, bishops and priests. He is doing so first by example and then by words. And he is disturbing not a few in the process.

His call to conversion by example is visible for all to see. He shuns pomp and circumstance; his lifestyle is simple. He lives in a small apartment, moves around in an economy car, refuses honors and never puts himself above the other person. Humility is his hallmark. He is truly concerned for the poor and the excluded, and wants “a church that is poor and for the poor.”


He has spelled out the call to conversion in his daily homilies and especially in “The Joy of the Gospel”—the programmatic document of his pontificate. He invites all local churches “to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” (No. 30) so as to be more “mission-oriented.” He acknowledges the need for “a conversion of the papacy” too (No. 31) and is working on that. He encourages everyone “to be bold and creative” in “rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization” (No. 33).

While Francis’ call has energized and inspired many in the church, and indeed far beyond its boundaries, it has clearly disturbed some cardinals and a number of bishops in such countries as Italy, Poland and the United States, as well as in the Roman Curia.

The pope’s call and insistence that this is the time (kairos) for mercy makes some uncomfortable, because they feel the substantive truth of Catholic faith is being contradicted, or is in danger of that, by the course he is steering. Their discomfort arises from a perception that the new pathway abandons some authentic articles of faith. This is especially the case when his call for conversion is a call “to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing, and at the same time most necessary,” and “not to be obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed” (No. 33) and to avoid preaching a message that “seems identified with those secondary aspects [of the church’s moral teaching] that, important as they are, do not in and of themselves convey the heart of Christ’s message”(No. 35).

As we have seen in the wake of the meeting of the Synod of Bishops, some are disturbed by the shift in ecclesial culture from one of clarity, ideas and logic to one of induction and real life as the foundation for theological reflection and pastoral practice—a discomfort that arises from a shift in first principles and theological method.

Francis’ call also disturbs those pastors and lay intellectuals who feel that the Catholics who have tried to live by the clear standards of the catechism are being placed second to those on the periphery of the faith. The Argentine priest-theologian Carlos Galli calls this “the elder brother syndrome.” Francis’ call to conversion is hard for them; especially if they see no need for conversion.

I have heard such concerns over the past year in Rome, and from prelates visiting the Vatican, and when I visited other countries, including the United States. I note, however, that the concerns are not only of a doctrinal, theological kind. They are also of a more practical nature, because Francis’ call is having an impact on their daily lives. A Polish bishop, for example, told me that he and his fellow bishops are “unhappy” because Francis’ emphasis on “a church that is poor and for the poor” has led many Polish Catholics not only to reduce their offerings to the church but also to ask why their bishops and priests cannot have simpler lifestyles like the pope. In a similar vein, the 40-year-old pastor of a rich parish near Modena, in central Italy, told me, “Francis is robbing us of our ministry; people are now expecting us to act like him.” I have heard the very same criticism from bishops.

Francis’ denunciation of clericalism and careerism in the church, and his call to abandon such ways has upset not a few bishops and priests; they lament that the hierarchical order and rules for success that have prevailed in recent decades are being jettisoned. The same is true of his criteria for the selection of bishops and cardinals.

His call to conversion is first and foremost a call for a change in attitudes among cardinals, bishops and priests. It is a call to be humble, welcoming, open, nonjudgmental and merciful. It is a call to reach out to those who are on the peripheries of life and society and to promote a culture of encounter and inclusion, not one of confrontation and exclusion.

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Jane P McNally, Ph.D.
4 years 10 months ago
Oh no! Not THAT! Could it be that the "pastors" are hearing correctly?? "Be like Me. Follow Me. Abide in Me..." Do you mean that Jesus meant us to take His words seriously?? And now the people want us to BE like that?? Oh no! not THAT! This doggone Pope has messed everything all up ....THAT'S it - this Pope causes confusion ...
Carolann Cirbee
4 years 10 months ago
Pope Francis seems to be one of the rare people who is entirely comfortable with uncertainty. To those who mutter darkly that he has an agenda that will force the Church to outcomes that he has preordained, we might pause and reflect - perhaps, instead, he truly believes in the working of the Holy Spirit. He may actually trust that God can take care of His own. Whether or not we (Francis included) know where all this upheaval may end is immaterial. God knows, and that's enough to keep us going. Francis has started a series of conversations, and no one knows where they will lead. We need to allow these conversations to unfold, listening with respect and concern to all the voices that speak - both those that say what we wish to hear and those that speak messages we'd rather not listen to. If the pope can embrace uncertainty, can the rest of us not at least try to do the same?
Jonathan Lunine
4 years 10 months ago
"Francis’ call also disturbs those pastors and lay intellectuals who feel that the Catholics who have tried to live by the clear standards of the catechism are being placed second to those on the periphery of the faith." : Perhaps those so disturbed might go back to Luke15 and reread the parable of the prodigal son.
4 years 10 months ago
Perhaps they are disturbed because they feel the privileges of their office, bestowed over the centuries, may be undeserved and taken away, with them having then to truly become the servants of the people they should have been all along. The Bible says those in authority should serve others, not rule over them. If they are also disturbed by an emphasis on those in the periphery of faith and society, they should remember that God doesn't want any to perish. The best way for that to happen is for us to abandon our judging of who is and isn't worthy to be in the Church (none of us), open the Church to all, allow the Holy Spirit to work on each person's conscience to transform them, and leave the separation of wheat and tares to God.
Henry George
4 years 10 months ago
What might help is the following: All parishes, once their basic operating budget has been met: turn over the remaining funds to the diocese to help poorer parishes. [I know one rich parish where the priest has three cars - all donated by members of the parish - all very nice cars. At another parish there are 15 people on staff, all full time - paid nice salaries while a mainly Hispanic parish done the road struggles to heat their church.] All Bishops must be reachable and must reply to their flock's concern. The whole Roman inner circle must be broken up. No Seminarian should study for four years in Rome - they should be in their own country learning about the Church in their country and the parishes in their Dioceses. Let each Seminarian spend one year studying in Rome during their MDiv studies for Ordination. Diocesan Priests should take a vow of simplicity. Why does any Priest own a house/condo and take expensive vacations - how is that compatible with following Christ ?


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