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.

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