A Church of Encounter

While countless millions across the globe are inspired by Pope Francis and cheer as he pushes ahead with the reform of the Roman Curia and renewal of the church, there is a minority within the Catholic community who do not like his ecclesiology. They do not like his vision of church or the kind of church he is building, and they are showing their dislike in various ways.

This became increasingly clear in connection with the two assemblies of the Synod of Bishops on the family, but the signs first appeared soon after his election. Some cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople—mainly intellectuals and aristocrats—were upset when he decided to live at Santa Marta, rather than in the Apostolic Palace. They considered this a desacralizing or downsizing of the papacy. They and others too do not like the vision of the church he first presented in the interview in August 2013 with Antonio Spadaro S.J., that was published in La Civiltà Cattolica, America and other Jesuit publications around the world, and that he developed more fully in his programmatic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” in November 2013.


Francis wants a church that is on mission, reaching out to others and accompanying them, especially those on the peripheries; a merciful church that is a field hospital for the many wounded of this world; a church that builds bridges, not walls. He wants a church that is poor and for the poor, one that rejects careerism; a church that is committed to encounter, inclusion and reconciliation, not one that is confrontational, self-referential or judgmental. He wants a synodal church, in which the bishops and faithful people walk together and authority is understood as service.

There is internal opposition to Francis’ ecclesiology. It first surfaced in July 2013 after he made his famous comment, “Who am I to judge?” in relation to homosexuals. It gained momentum around the assembly in September 2014 of the Synod of Bishops on the family and struck with force at the assembly in 2015, when, among other things, 13 cardinals—including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Cardinal Daniel di Nardo of the United States—sent the pope a letter challenging the integrity of the synod process he had approved. It hardened around the question of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could, under certain circumstances, take Communion. It is now clear that this latter question is but one element, one might call it a symbol, of a much broader opposition to Francis’ understanding of the church.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl highlighted this in his interview with America (Oct. 18) when, commenting on the opposition to Pope Francis, he said: “I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes halfway implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope.”

He recalled that the pope “is calling for a church that, to my mind, is much more in contact with the Gospel, with the living out of the Gospel. Not just the articulation of the Gospel, the voicing of the Gospel, the proclaiming of the Gospel, but the personal living of it, and that seems to be what is the most attractive aspect of this pope, why so many people find him inviting, why so many people follow him, why so many people are coming back to the practice of the faith. And for reasons known only to them, there are some who find this somewhat threatening.”

Cardinal Wuerl is right. A minority of cardinals, bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay Catholics find Francis’ ecclesiology “somewhat threatening.” Some expressed their opposition at the synod; others in the Vatican are resisting his reform of the Roman Curia—as evidenced by the recent leaking of confidential documents regarding the Holy See’s finances—while more (mostly Curial cardinals) have challenged his reform of the annulment process. Then there are those, particularly in economic and political circles, who object to what Francis said in his encyclical “Laudato Si’.”

Francis, who will be 79 in December, is in good health and appears to enjoy extraordinary inner peace. He is profoundly conscious that he was chosen by God to lead the church at this moment in history, so he is not fazed or deterred by such opposition. He is moving forward with determination to reform the Roman Curia and renew the church worldwide. He is planning foreign trips for 2016 and 2017 and will create new cardinals in June. Above all he is preparing to open the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Dec. 8.

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