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.