Seven years on, is the promise of real reform with Pope Francis dead in the water

Seven years on, is the promise of real reform with Pope Francis dead in the water?

(Source: Consuelo Vélez, Colombian theologian; translation: Novena)

With Pope Francis’ 2013 arrival to the pontificate, fresh air came into the Church. The air became less rarefied and we saw a pope closer to the people.

His simple language, without pretending to have the last word, opened many doors of acceptance because he invited people to listen and be enriched by the vision of others. His closeness to the poor – so much in keeping with the essence of the Gospel – leaned on Latin American theological discourse and the portion of the Church that has always been most committed to it. Condemnations of theologians are a thing of the past; in fact, Francis has even received some censured thinkers in the Vatican.

It is true that in the more “officialist” sector of the Church the figure this pope cuts has shocked and people prefer not to talk too much about him – only what is necessary because they cannot show their non-adherence to the pope. Also, the most conservative groups that emerged in the last few decades feel uncomfortable with this pope because he does not focus his discourse on what they care so much about: worship, morals, rules, etc.

Those who are impressed indeed are those who are far from the Church or non-believers who were not interested in any pontiff and, despite that, Francis piqued their interest and they saw him as more capable of understanding today’s world.

But seven years have passed and structural reforms in the Church have not been forthcoming.

The Council of Cardinals appointed by the Pope at the beginning of his pontificate to respond to the Church’s need of reform – starting with the revision of the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus (the legislative text published by John Paul II in 1988 which regulates the composition and competencies of the various departments and bodies of the Roman Curia) – does not seem to have finished its work.

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The Synods on the family, youth and especially that of the Amazon raised many expectations because each was preceded by a very valuable consultation process that allowed the Synod Fathers to be presented with current issues. But Francis’ post-synodal exhortations after these events, although they have very valuable aspects, have not modified ecclesial praxis.

The exhortation Querida Amazonia (2020) has been the most recent one and the comments on it still resonate, especially because of the situation of pandemic that we are currently experiencing and which cannot but be related to the care of the “Common Home”.

But in this document there remains a certain “blandness” to the Pope’s “fourth dream” – about the Church – in which steps were expected in relation to married priests or the diaconate for women but which were not taken, or rather, things went backwards.

The subject of the female diaconate seems to be getting more and more bogged down, marring that very significant moment when the Superiors General gathered in their plenary assembly in 2016 said to Francis: “Holy Father, in the Church there is the office of the permanent diaconate, but it is open only to men, married or single. What prevents the Church from including women among the permanent deacons, as was the case in the early Church, and why not create an official commission that can study the subject?”

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The Pope responded that he would establish an official commission because it would be good for the Church to clarify that point.

It beggars belief that it is so difficult to clarify a point on which there are already so many documents with such good and solid foundations as to take a step forward.

Again, the recent publication of the instruction “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” (July 2020) of the Congregation for the Clergy with the approval of Pope Francis begins by opening up hopeful paths of parish renewal – so urgently needed for reform – only to, after the first few paragraphs, focus on what canon law says about various aspects related to parishes.

The interest in making it clear that the parish priest must be a presbyter – and that much without any exceptions (n. 66) – leaps off the page. Everything the pope says about the synodality in the Church is totally absent; the word does not even appear.

We could point to many other examples, but the aim is not to evaluate what the Pope has done but instead to ask the question: will the long-awaited ecclesial reform come?

Personally, I don’t think so, but I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

We will be left with the good experience of being able to turn to his magisterium and to some of his discourses in which he calls things by name – clericalism, the economy that kills, a place for women in the Church, the people of God, the ‘Church on a mission’, etc. – and to remember many of his stances, which have been very special and evangelical.

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But it seems to me that we will have to keep on enduring for much longer an ecclesial structure that is so rigid and so full of fears that it will not risk being a Church on a mission, a missionary Church, a Church of the people of God where clerics, laity and religious live the co-responsibility of the evangelising mission and risk everything to become more and more like the Church that Jesus wanted.

More on Novena on the need for reform in the Church:

Democracy, equal rights, trustworthiness… German priest urges Church to learn “basics of modern society” and regain relevance

Young people share hopes for post-lockdown Church not afraid “to be challenged, to learn, to adapt and to grow”

Papal confidant Antonio Spadaro says next pope “won’t be able to go back” on Francis’ reforms

German missionary warns democracy in Church “only way out” of “dead end of feudalism, clericalism and traditionalism”

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