The On-going Reform of the Church

On Friday we celebrated the feast of St. Francis of Assisi for the first time since the new pope took the name of Francis and began to show us a simpler, humbler way of leadership.

Although he has become the media’s darling through rejecting red shoes, limousines and grand papal apartments, some church people are beginning to wonder whether Pope Francis is ever going to legislate major reforms in the Church.  More than six months have passed since his election and there is a danger that his legacy is one of style, not substance.

To think like this is to misunderstand the man.  He knows that it would be relatively easy to make changes from above, but that such changes might be resisted, or thrown out five years later.  To bring about real and substantial change, we have first to change the hearts and minds of people.  He says:

The structural and organisational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward.  The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them… but without getting lost.  The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials.

In speaking in this manner, Pope Francis is following the example of the poor friar of Assisi who, 800 years ago, confounded the expectations of his family and friends in order to begin a whole new way of life in the Church.  St. Francis listened carefully to what he believed the Lord was saying to him from deep within his heart.  This is what we call discernment, another topic on which the pope has spoken in recent weeks:

This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment… But I am always wary of decisions made hastily. I am always wary of the first decision, that is, the first thing that comes to my mind if I have to make a decision. This is usually the wrong thing. I have to wait and assess, looking deep into myself, taking the necessary time.

For three days last week Pope Francis held his first ever meeting with the commission of cardinals he appointed back in April.  Their mandate is to advise on the reform of the Roman Curia.  Although we might think of the curial officials as the “civil service” of the church, the word curia actually means “senate”.  Some immediate and meaningful changes must be made so that church administration is better adapted to modern demands.  But only Pope Francis’s emphasis on attitudinal reform and prayerful discernment will change senators and bureaucrats into ministers who warm the hearts of others.

Fr Thomas Plastow SJ
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