Monday, March 18, 2013

Pope and Change

Not many people had the runner-up of the 2005 conclave, Cardinal Jose Mario Bggoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, on their short list of papabile, the candidates most likely to be selected pope. Yet, when the 76-year-old stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to greet the 200,000 people who had gathered in the square below, it was clear that change was in the air.

Gone was the sartorial splendor of previous popes, with Bergoglio wearing just a white cassock, though still composed of watered silk. His pectoral cross was a simple design of wood, not the traditional gold. He only donned the heavily embroidered stole when it was time to offer his first blessing, then removed it shortly thereafter. But before he blessed the people, he asked for their blessing first, bowing his head in prayerful humility. He spoke in excellent Italian, off-the-cuff, colloquially, closing with a  wish for “a good evening and a good sleep.”

I've already written about the importance of the selection of the name Francis, in honor of the man called to “rebuild the Church, which is in ruins.” Bergoglio is a Jesuit from the New World,, a Spanish-speaking priest of Italian descent fluent in six languages. While most of the changes we have seen reflect a difference in style, notably from his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI, they may portend upcoming changes in substance, to a point.

One thing I noticed on that balcony on Wednesday evening, Rome time, was a change in attitude toward the papal master of ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, who favored lace and ancient vestments and liturgies in Latin, and in whom he found a kindred spirit in Benedict. Expect him to be replaced soon. That will send a message to those trying to get the Church to return to the days of priest with his back to the people, a maniple on their left arm, and the people sitting quietly in the pews fingering rosaries and having minimal participation in the liturgy.

Expect changes in Church governance, in the Roman Curia, the Cabinet-like departments that impact the day-to-day and long-term operations of the Church. Francis made a strong statement against Curial careerism shortly before the conclave began. It had the effect of being his pre-election speech, as most commentators have said the cardinals were looking for someone to come in to clean house.

If Francis wants to make a bold statement about women in the Church, he would do well to replace to place women in visible leadership positions in the Curia. Look for a change in the Secretary of State, the Vatican's prime minister, since there is no love lost for the current office holder, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Salesian and former archbishop of Bologna. He exposed Benedict to many missteps, especially early in his papacy, and protected the careerists in the Curia. The post will probably stay with an Italian, but perhaps go to someone from the south.

Look for Francis to lay down the law on the priesthood, which has been scandalized by sexual and financial scandals. Seminaries need to produce priests who have a greater calling to assist with social issues, have a preferential option for the poor, and see themselves as servants, not just enforcers of doctrine and who enjoy the power that comes from telling people how to live their lives. I've seen and heard of too many examples of priests ordained in the past two decades and seminarians currently in training who do not exhibit Christ-like qualities and can often be heavy-handed, intolerant and condescending to the laity; who enjoy being too close to money and power; who yearn for a return to the 1940s liturgies at the expense of all other celebrations; who force out good, devout, practicing Catholics who are gay, divorced, or poor and in need of social services or government assistance.

Clericalism, at its worst, empowered priests and the hierarchy to handle the scandals of recent years as they did, protecting the institution while hurting the people who truly make up the Church. If Francis wants to at least attempt to stanch the flow of people from emptying churches, he will redirect the priesthood from fraternity to collegiality that welcomes dialogue, participation, and even veto power over administrative matters by the laity.

Transparency does not exist in many Church operations, but from the local parish to the Vatican, the Church would do well to pay heed to the admonition of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If changes are not made, expect even further reductions in donations from the faithful. Also expect condemnation from international banking regulators who have already put the Holy See on notice that it is close to being blacklisted for failure to ensure it is not involved in money laundering and funding terrorists. One way the Vatican was hit financially because of its lack of transparency: the Vatican Museums, a major source of income for the city-state, could not accept credit card transactions for six weeks.

While I would hope for changes in acceptance of LGBT individuals and families, I do not expect any change in that direction, especially judging by Bergoglio's strongly anti-gay comments in the battle for marriage equality in Argentina, a battle he lost. A strong president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, stood up to Bergoglio in this human rights debate, and the overwhelmingly Catholic country became the tenth nation to approve marriage and rights to adoption by same-sex couples. Yet, some media reports hint that Francis may, based on past statements, soften his tone on some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples.  After all, he has now seen that going on three-years after marriage equality became the law of the land in Argentina, the country has not fallen apart, nor has equality threatened the stability of opposite-sex marriages. While any step in this direction would be appreciated, I do not hold out much hope. I would enjoy being proven wrong.

Pope John XXIII had a brief pontificate but changed the direction of the Catholic Church by calling the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul I sent signals of dramatic reform until he died just 33 days after being elected pope. However long Francis sits on the Chair of Peter, he has the opportunity to steer the Church in a new direction. He needs the strength of character and the force of personality and example.  He needs to put reform-minded people, not just men and not just clerics, in true positions of power to enforce change. And I hope he looks at the world of 2013 and realizes that changes in families lead to a softening of tone and greater acceptance of all God's children in any situation or stage of life.

One last thing...Giving credit where credit is due, I must thank Bryan Terry for giving me the title to this post. It's from a tweet he wrote on March 13, the date Francis was elected.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Handicapping the Papal Election

On Tuesday, 115 cardinals out of 117 eligible to vote for his successor will meet in the Sistine Chapel conclave to select a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. From among their number, one will be named the 266th pontiff, whom Catholics believe to be the successor of Saint Peter.

One cannot enter the mind of Benedict to determine whether he wanted to be pope. Only the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger knows the answer to such speculation. What is known is that he did not refuse his election. Benedict said he wanted to “re-Christianize Europe.”  If anything, his papacy, just shy of eight years, accomplished the opposite, driving people from the pews through mismanagement of sexual and financial scandals, showing more concern for the Church as Institution rather than the Church as People.

For more than a week, cardinals have been sizing each other up to consider whom they view as “papabile,” or “popeable.” Since Benedict and his successor, Pope John Paul II, appointed all of the cardinal electors, it’s likely that the next pope will be from the same theological vein as the man who appointed him. Do not expect any dramatic change on the hot button topics of women or married priests, a welcoming of gay and lesbian lay participation in the Church, more financial transparency (though individual parishes have been exemplary in this regard), birth control, or changes in the Vatican bureaucracy that protects careerist clerics and stifles reform.

One thing about the Vatican, public opinion holds little sway over the Church – its theology, its archaic system of governance, its image. The belief is the Church has weathered many storms over the years and in time, the public will forget about the latest scandals.  Few Church leaders are prosecuted for crimes. With the exception of Ireland, which took the Vatican to task for the way it handled decades of various scandals, most politicians fear speaking against the Church because of what a potential backlash from the Catholic electorate.

However, Catholic parishioners are voting with their feet and their wallets and pocketbooks. They are leaving the Church in droves or cutting off their financial support. The areas where the Church is growing most around the world are also areas where large populations do not have access to higher levels of education. Those nations are the Church’s future, while Europe, the United States and Canada are its past.

Some on the theological far right are calling for a smaller and purer Church. They may get their wish on the smaller aspect, but if the actions of its highest rankling prelates are any indication, the Church as institution will be far from purer.

Whoever the cardinals choose, the new pope’s background will be scrutinized for any participation, in word and deed or through commission or omission, in any of the scandals that have impacted the Church over the past two decades. He will also face a more skeptical media, more so in Italy than in the United States, where many reporters still remain deferential, if not reverential to Catholic hierarchy. Watch this week’s conclave coverage for examples.

Will it be an American? Doubtful, though New York’s Timothy Dolan and Boston’s Sean O’Malley have been hyped by the media. Will it be a Canadian, like Marc Ouellete, who heads the Vatican Congregation that selects bishops and who has ties to Latin America? Will it be an African like Nigeria’s Francis Arize or Ghana’s Peter Turkson? Some of their political statements, especially on homosexuality, are troubling and will turn off Western Catholics, particularly younger parishioners who have no issue with LGBT rights, including the right to marry. Will it be the Argentine Leonardo Sandri? He combines being an insider and diplomat with being from Latin America, where the Church, while growing, is facing stiff competition from Mormonism and Evangelical sects. Will an Italian, such as Milan’s Angelo Scola, reclaim the chair of Peter? Scola, formerly patriarch of Venice, is not considered a dynamic speaker, and the thought is the cardinals are looking for a showman like John Paul rather than a theologian-professor like Benedict.

There could be a post-election surprise. One of Scola’s predecessors in Venice, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was elected pope in 1958 at age 77.  He was considered to be a caretaker after the 19-year reign of the imperious Pius XII.  Yet, as Pope John XXIII, he changed the direction of the Church through the Second Vatican Council, redefining the role of the Church in the modern world, giving greater voice to the laity, absolving Jews for the death of Jesus, and opening dialogue among various faiths. Serving only 4 1/2 years, the Council’s work continued until Pope Paul VI. John Paul and Benedict, particularly the latter, tried to roll back the work of that Council, euphemistically calling the revisions “reforms.”

We may know who is chosen pope in the coming week, but as more Catholics choose their own direction in their faith journey, whoever succeeds Benedict will have less impact on the lives of 1.2 billion followers. Papal elections still make for good theater and news coverage.

One last thing…thank you to various members of the media who have allowed me to “pontificate” on my own, offering me a forum to discuss my view of Benedict’s decision to abdicate, the process leading to the election of his successor, and the state of the Church today: Mike Moss ofWTOP, the all-news CBS affiliate in Washington, DC; Michelangelo Signorile, ofSirius-XM OutQ; David Badash of The New Civil Rights Movement; and all at the Poughkeepsie Journal, notably Local Editor John Nelson.