Pope Francis demonstrated his collegial style in the first moments of his papacy. Speaking from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, he made five references to himself as a bishop instead of invoking titles like pope or supreme pontiff, and he asked for the assembled people to bless him and pray for him. He said: “Now let’s begin this journey, bishop and people, this journey of the church of Rome, which is the one that presides in charity over all the churches—a journey of brotherhood, love and trust among us.”
At that time the church had felt the power and significance of the first papal resignation in nearly 600 years, a great act of humility by Benedict XVI and a decision with consequences for the papacy. Now in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), an apostolic exhortation published on Nov. 24, Pope Francis lays out his ecclesial vision and calls for a broad program of renewal and reform that touches every level of the church.
“Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” Francis explains; “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” An essential element of this conversion is a renewed emphasis on collegiality, the collaboration and shared leadership among bishops in the governance of the church. In the exhortation, Francis expresses the hope of the Second Vatican Council that episcopal conferences could “contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit,” and he acknowledges that the “juridical status” and “genuine doctrinal authority” of episcopal conferences “has not been sufficiently elaborated.”
This collegial spirit is demonstrated and practiced in the exhortation itself, in which the bishops’ conferences around the world serve as a major point of reference. Pope Francis cites 10 conferences in all, and the list is impressive in its geographical diversity: Africa, Asia, the United States, France, Oceania, Latin America, Brazil, the Philippines, the Congo and India. Francis explains that the papal magisterium should not be expected “to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the church and the world.” He writes: “I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’”
This inclusion of regional voices better serves the life and mission of the church. Diocesan bishops, through their service in every corner of the world, have unique access to the experience, perspective, cultural context and pastoral challenges of the lay faithful in their respective dioceses. It is essential for everyone who exercises authority in the church to renew efforts to reach out and listen to how God is working in people’s everyday lives, especially those on the margins of society and the church. Collegiality not only requires greater cooperation among bishops; it also calls for the discovery of new ways to facilitate meaningful and sustained cooperation and dialogue between a bishop and the people of his diocese. In the exhortation, Francis writes that a bishop needs to “encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” Dialogue and collaboration are meaningless unless every participant is willing to truly listen with an open heart. Structures are needed to ensure this co-responsibility for fulfilling the church’s mission.
Significantly, Francis is implementing this vision in the preparatory stages of the synod of bishops by inviting the participation of every member of the church. Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the synod, has said the Vatican’s questionnaire about pastoral challenges to family life should be distributed “as widely as possible to deaneries and parishes.” In a recent interview with The National Catholic Reporter, he explained the consultation is intended to “gather information from the grass roots and not limit itself to the level of the Curia or other institutions.”
This process is a superb example of bishops and people on a journey together. Archbishop Baldisseri has repeatedly emphasized that while this consultation is not a popular referendum on church teaching, it must still be meaningful and effective. He has said that after his office collects the summaries from the bishops’ conferences, an ad hoc group of experts will examine and summarize the feedback, which will be used to create the instrumentum laboris, the working document for the synod.
The group of experts should include laity and clergy, men and women. Archbishop Baldisseri has said, “We have started taking a different approach...and this will help us a great deal.” This new approach embodies the reality that the church is the entire people of God, clergy and laypeople alike.