A To-Do List for Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis,

On March 13, you told the world: “I have the feeling that my pontificate will be brief: four or five years. I don’t know, even two or three. Two have already passed.” Reactions were swift. “Say it ain’t so!” the New York Daily News cried out.

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That’s how I feel too. Thank you, Holy Father, for these two uplifting years. Your symbolic gestures have touched us deeply: renouncing the trappings of the papal apartment to live at Santa Marta, hugging a man whose face was terribly disfigured, washing and kissing the feet of male and female prisoners on Holy Thursday, and showing good-humored gentleness to a six-year old boy who stood by your side during a talk and sat in your seat. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” you reminded us of how good the news of God’s merciful love really is.

Still, I recognize that you are 78 years old and that your time and energy are limited, as is the case with all of us. Your predecessor, Pope Benedict, paved the way for a graceful, prayerful exit from the heavy duties of the papacy when he realized that he no longer had the energy to serve well. With many others, I hope that time does not come soon for you, but I know that you will act freely and won’t hesitate to resign when you judge that the appropriate moment has arrived.

I write today because, with you, I hope that the “Joy of the Gospel” will spread contagiously. I know how deeply committed you are to reform of the church as a whole and of the Roman Curia in particular. So, as someone who admires you deeply, I want to express to you what lies in my heart. I hope that, before you go…

1. You will place women in positions of genuine authority in the church.

Even make them cardinals! Over the centuries some members of the college have been lay. I long for the day when women participate equally as members of the Roman Congregations and as the heads of some of them. Recent church documents have been eloquent in speaking about the dignity of women and the recognition of their rights. “Vita Consecrata” stated: “It is therefore urgently necessary to take concrete steps, beginning by providing room for women to participate in different fields and at all levels, including decision-making processes, above all in matters which concern women themselves.” Only tiny steps have been taken to put this into effect.

Let me offer a very concrete instance. Seventy-two percent of the religious in the world are women. There are more than 3,000 communities of women religious, with hundreds of thousands of members. But who makes the top-level decisions about them? I used to participate with you in plenary sessions of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which consisted of 13 cardinals, two bishops and eight superiors general.  I know how aware you were that all 23 of us were men!  That Congregation had a role in approving “Vita Consecrata,” the very document that speaks so eloquently about the need to have women involved in the decision-making process when decisions affect them.

Recently, Holy Father, you were quoted as saying informally in Turin that important decisions need to be made about women in the church, but in making those decisions we should not overemphasize any particular function, like their being head of a Roman Congregation. You then added a beautiful image: "Women in the Church have the same place, so to speak, that Mary had with the apostles on the morning of Pentecost; to think of the apostles without Mary just doesn’t work.  Jesus wanted it that way.” 

By all accounts women are the poorest of the poor throughout the world. In almost all societies they suffer from discrimination in the workplace and frequent violence at home. I hope that, during your time as pope, women in the church will be valued equally with men and, on all levels, including Roman Congregations, will participate actively in decision-making processes, especially when the decisions being made will affect them vitally.

2. You will continue to reform the College of Cardinals.

Thank you for what you are already doing to make that body more representative of the universal church. Popes have used cardinals, originally clergymen serving the parishes in Rome, as a consultative body from early times, but they became firmly established as the exclusive papal electors only in the 12th century—not really not too long ago in an institution as old as the church.

While many members of today’s college are outstanding servants of God’s people, I think that the group as a whole is much too old to be a mirror of the church in electing the pope. Seeing the cardinals processing into St. Peter’s at a recent papal Mass, a laywoman said to me: “It’s a little much, isn’t it? It looks like the old boys club.” A large part of the group has lived for years in curial positions in Rome. More than 45 percent of the electors are still from Europe. In spite of your efforts to internationalize it, the college is also still much too “Italian.” Twenty-six of the present electors are from Italy, a far greater number than from any other country.

3. You will revise the method of synods completely.

Collegiality has been a prominent theme during your papacy. Synods have enormous potential for being an effective sign of collegiality and communion within the church, but so far little of that potential has been realized. Here too you have already taken initial steps, especially during last year’s Synod on the Family. I am very grateful for these developments.

The methodology originally set up for synods was not only frustrating, it also seemed geared toward maintaining control. As you experienced at the synod of 2001 where you played a very significant role, during the first two weeks of a typical synod a participant listened to 250 discourses in a row. There was no organized theme to these discourses. Each bishop could speak on whatever aspect of the general topic he wanted to address. If, for example, the topic of a synod was the laity, the first bishop might talk on the missionary role of the laity, the second on Catholic family life, the third on fostering prayer among lay people, the fourth on abortion. You took part in several of these synods, so you experienced how hard it was to concentrate on so many consecutive discourses, on unrelated topics. You also saw that few topics received in depth treatment.

At the end, propositions were formulated by working groups and were voted upon by the synod as a whole. They were then presented to the pope as advice. He gave them to a committee that drafted a document, which he approved and which was published a year or two later.

But could not the synod be a body that really debates one or two questions in depth? And could not its role, rather than being merely consultative, be one of making decisions “cum et sub Petro”? This fall, the second session of the Synod on the Family will be taking place. I hope that the participants feel fully included.

4. You will strengthen the power of episcopal conferences.

Historically, there has often been tension between center and the periphery. At the Council of Trent, many participating bishops were eager for reform of the “head and members,” but, when it came to reforming the “head,” they found themselves opposed by the popes and the Roman Curia.

While you yourself are eager for reform, resistance at the center still exists. Episcopal conferences sometimes find themselves outmaneuvered in matters like the translation of the bible into their local language, the adaptation of the liturgy to their local culture and even the nomination of bishops, as they find their suggestions blocked by “power-brokers” or “king-makers” in Rome.

One's horizon always influences one's view, bringing varied insights and nuances. As you have noted, the church appears quite different when perceived from a cardinal’s office in Rome than when seen from a comunidad de base in Argentina!

With you, I am convinced that the time has come for a new way of structuring the relationship between the center and the local churches. The former model was largely political: the church, as a political power, set up governmental departments in Vatican City and embassies in countries throughout the world. Thank you for exhibiting, through your actions and the way you teach us in documents like "Laudato Si'," a model based on the communion of local bishops with the bishop of Rome.

5. You will make the unity of Christians a top priority.

O, how I long for the day when the face of Christ will be reflected throughout the world in an unbroken mirror.

Has ecumenism stalled? I know that much has been done, but so much remains to be done. Recently my heart ached when I visited St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. It is clearly an old Catholic Church, which at the time of the Reformation was re-shaped into a Protestant one. As I gazed at the cathedral I felt the pain of divided Christendom. Are our differences so great that they cannot be bridged? Will Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” someday be answered? With you, I believe that one day it will. Can we take courageous steps in that regard?

In the heated years of the 16th century, both Catholics and Protestants missed numerous opportunities for reconciliation. Such too has been the case with the division between Catholic and Orthodox churches. Now the motives for reunion are more pressing than ever. Only humble dialogue will bring it about.

6. You will continue to make the church more and more the advocate of the poor.

Have you reminded us of anything more frequently than this? The church is never more herself than when she goes out to the periphery. “Go,” Jesus commanded, “go even to the ends of the earth.”

At the opening of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII, looking out toward the periphery, called us to be the church of all, and especially the church of the poor.

Pope John Paul II asked that we look beneath poverty to examine its roots, particularly the decisions of human beings that flow from “real forms of idolatry.” He expressed a special concern about the “all-consuming desire for profit” and “the thirst for power, with the intention of imposing one’s will upon others.” This is a theme that you have taken up forcefully.

Thank you for recalling to us that these unjust “structures of violence” bring suffering and death to the poor. They become embodied in unjust laws, power-based economic relationships, the arms trade, inequitable treaties, artificial boundaries, oppressive governments, ingrained corruption and numerous other more subtle obstacles to harmonious societal relationships. They keep the poor poor.

So many of the world’s poor are young. Will they be increasingly tempted to become violent revolutionaries or terrorists, as some are today? How important it is for the church to reach out to them especially. A synod in which both you and I participated cried out to young people: “You are ‘sentinels of the morning’ ... How is the Lord of history asking you to build a civilization of love? You have a keen sense of what honesty and sincerity require. You do not want to be caught up into divisive ethnic struggles, nor poisoned by the gangrene of corruption. How can we be disciples of Jesus together and put into practice Christ’s teachings on the Mount of the Beatitudes?”

Those are my hopes “before you go,” Holy Father. I recognize that all of them are themes that you have begun to address. My prayer is that “God who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

Your brother in the Lord,

Robert P. Maloney, C.M.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James MacGregor
2 years 5 months ago
Reads like a lot of great management stuff. To whom do we look for spiritual guidance?
2 years 5 months ago
The list reads to me like it is coming from solid Christian spirituality that calls to mind the beatitudes. Also, as someone who has profited spiritually from reading Rev. Robert P. Maloney's other writings, published here and elsewhere, I have no hesitation to say that he is among those one can look to for spiritual guidance.
Michael CALLAGHAN CM
2 years 5 months ago
Bob Maloney taught me, mostly by example, the deep spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul...have every confidence in his ideas and leadership!
Bill Parks
2 years 5 months ago

I believe the most important thing that the church has to do is manage intelligently (by following the example of Jesus Christ) the correct solution for alleviating the priest shortages in so many countries. This can be accomplished by following the example of Jesus Christ (God in the Flesh Who knows what is best for the church in this regard because He possesses perfect Divine knowledge). Here is what I believe Jesus would do today. He would do exactly what He did when He chose His first "priests," namely His 12 Apostles. Jesus chose 11 married men out 12 to be his first apostle/priests. If the church followed Jesus example in this regard, the problem of a shortage would disappear quickly and the faithful would not be denied individual attention from an ordained minister. When I was young in the 1940s and 1950s we had many priest to chose from for spiritual guidance. Also, Jesus did not require the equivalent of PhD. education. In fact He chose fishermen. It takes as many years of study to become a Catholic priest as it does to get a Ph.D. degree. For heavens sake, a parish is not supposed to be a graduate school! The inability of the church coming to terms with a spiritual reality and how to manage a spiritual crisis is so very disappointing. I think the Lord must be frustrated with the lack of sensible action in this regard by His church. The solution proposed in this comment is so self-evident that it's hard to imagine such hardened hearts in a church hierarchy who proclaim to follow Christ but in this regard do not follow His very clear example when He chose 11 "married" men out of 12. Instead, I read that a rule was made up about 1,000 AD where priests could no longer marry in order to keep church property from being inherited by a priest's family members. If this is true it is not a very lofty spiritual motive for not following Christ’s example and letting 11 out of 12 priests be married. Another excuse I hear is that Christ did not marry. Well there is good reason for that. He is God in the flesh. Priests are not God in the Flesh! If they claim to be, that’s heresy!

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