A publication of Sacred Heart University
Previous month:
November 2018
Next month:
January 2019

Entries from December 2018

The Pope’s Bold Plan for Rebuilding the Church is Being Ignored

There is arguably no papal document since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that has mapped out such a radical reform of Church governance, life and mission as Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel).

It is the blueprint for what the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has called a “paradigm shift” towards a more decentralized, synodal and missionary Church for the next millennium.

Yet, in the more than five years since Francis issued the exhortation in September 2013, this revolutionary text remains largely unstudied and unimplemented at almost every level of the Catholic Church—parishes, dioceses, episcopal conference and even at Vatican.

Revelations over the past year confirming that the clergy sexual abuse crisis and its institutional cover-up are a global phenomenon and not limited to just a few regions have further neutralized Evangelii gaudium’s impact.

The highly emotive events of 2018—including, but not limited to, the widespread abuse catastrophe in Chile, the removal of the sexual predator Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals and the former papal nuncio to Washington’s lurid accusations that the Vatican and the pope have allowed sexually active homosexuals to climb the hierarchical while covering up abuse—have forced the now 82-year-old Francis to devote much more time to dealing with the abuse crisis.

Catholics who identify as traditionalists, and those obsessed with the strict enforcement of rules and blind submissiveness to the clergy, have seen this crisis as the chink in the Jesuit pope’s armor. Though most of Pope Francis’ critics remained silent and were even dismissive of the claims of abuse victims only a few years ago, they have now seized on his seemingly ambivalent handling of this crisis as their most effective means of further blocking his more widespread and profound plans for reform.

It is hard to recall a time in modern history when the Bishop of Rome was so contested, despised and vilified. Not even Paul VI faced such opposition as he tried to implement the reforms called by the just-concluded Vatican Council II.

Evangelii gaudium is a challenging manifesto for deep and radical reform and, as such, it is a threat to Francis’ traditionalist opponents. That most Catholics, including bishops and priests, are largely unaware of the exhortation’s profound significance, or are just ignoring it, is of great assistance to these opponents’ efforts.

Certainly, other documents from this pontificate—such as the 2015 encyclical on creation and ecology (Laudato Si’) and the 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family (Amoris laetitis)—have raised a lot more discussion and controversy. But, by the pope’s own admission, none of them are as important as Evangelii gaudium. Francis continues to see “The Joy of the Gospel” as his most consequential contribution to the future life and development of the Church.

The main objective of the document is to move Catholics out of the comfort of their self-referential and neat-and-tidy communities into the messiness and ambiguities of everyday life beyond the church sanctuary. It is a call to renewed mission.

Thus, it is a stinging rebuke to “the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’ ” and a direct summons “to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization” (EG 33).

Pope Francis is trying to launch a radical “missionary option” that will necessarily mean “transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

That means change and reform—even of the structures and practices of the centralized bureaucracy at the Vatican.

“Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” the pope says. He calls for a greater enhancement of the “genuine doctrinal authority” of episcopal conferences.

The main goal is to renew the Church as a community of believers that takes the Gospel of Jesus Christ outside of its comfort zone and joyfully shares it (not imposes it) with all people, but especially with those who are poor, despised, outcast and on the margins. It certainly does not envision a Church that is immaculate and perfect, but one that takes risks and is unafraid of stumbling in its mission to share the Good News and the Word of Life with all humanity.

This, in a nutshell, this the kind of Church that Pope Francis is trying to bring forth:

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.

“If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.”

The pope continues: “More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”

This is what a renovated Church looks like in the mind of Pope Francis. Those who want to be part of the rebuilding project have the guiding document at hand. It’s called the Gospel. And the blueprint for making it alive for the Church in our times is Evangelii gaudium.

All Catholics, no matter what their role or responsibility in the Church, need to read this apostolic exhortation, study it and pray over it. Then help implement it. Perhaps this would be the start of a rejuvenated and vibrant community of faith, a sign of hope for the world.


Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.


A Church in Need of Kenosis

When I learned quite recently that Pope Francis is such a fan of the work of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo that he called him one day to congratulate him on his latest book, I was led to give more attention to Vattimo’s prescription for ecclesial health, that what the church needs is more kenosis! In face of the church’s continuing struggle with the scandal of sexual abuse, everyone rightly proclaims the importance of becoming more humble. Given the history, we would be foolish not be humble. Humility, however, is not enough.

Humility is a virtue, but kenosis is a practice. The two, of course, belong together, though while kenosis cannot happen without humility, humility doesn’t always lead to kenosis. The intensely “umble” Uriah Heep had no sense that this attitude required change. In fact, of course, in Dickens’ novels and in the Catholic Church, any humility that is just cringing is pretty much the opposite of true humility.

Kenosis, or self-emptying, is what happens when our need to be humbled is patterned after the divine life. In the Incarnation, Paul says in Philippians, it is God who empties the self of God in becoming human in Jesus Christ. In a strange way, we know that Christ is God in history because he was, for all his compassionate and healing actions, in human terms, a figure of weakness and failure. Discipleship of Christ begins in humility, which should not be hard for human beings with open eyes, but it has to continue in the actions that humility requires, the self-emptying that stands as a sign of contradiction to the world around us. Even if it is destined to end in failure.

There is a lesson in divine kenosis for a church struggling with resolution to the ongoing crises of sex abuse and abuse of power. God’s parallel to human humility is divine compassion, and kenosis is the action that cashes in that level of concern. A truly humble church patterned after the life of Christ will empty out all self-concern in the pursuit of purification. Clericalism got us into this mess by wrapping up our self-concern in the mantle of “protecting the good name of the church,” and we will only get out of this mess, if we ever do, by abandoning all attempts to be anything other than totally open. Evidently, our leaders have not all yet reached this point. Kenosis, it seems sometimes, is reserved to God, whereas divine kenosis is really a teaching tool on the way to achieve true humanity.

The kenosis demanded of the clergy is pretty obvious; discipleship of Christ requires service before prestige or, more accurately, only the prestige that follows from a life of service that is not seeking that kind of recognition. But what is not quite so obvious is that there is no kenosis if there is no action. Interior acts of humility, however sincere, do not cut it. What will the clergy in general and bishops in particular do? One thing they could do would be to act on the conviction that there is a difference between church management and sacramental leadership, and that management is not a clerical charism. Step aside and let qualified laity do what qualified laity are qualified to do.

The kenosis demanded of the lay community is less obvious but equally important. The virtue of humility has been preached to the laity for many centuries and very successfully internalized. This contributed considerably to the ease with which bishops could hide predatory priests from the law. But the humility the church preaches to the laity is deeply a-kenotic because it calls for no action at all. It not only does not involve actions that grow out of humility, it positively discourages them. Lay humility as assumed by the laity cannot accept that understanding of the virtue. The humility of the Hebrew prophets did not prevent them challenging their leaders, even if this put their lives in danger. Self-emptying for the laity today is not about giving up prestige, but rather giving up the comfort that accompanies passivity. Every time we do not speak when we should or do not act when action is called for, we are failing in our discipleship of the Christ who personifies the self-emptying of God.


Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.


The Church is a Field Hospital After a Battle

We are living in an enormously traumatic moment in the life of the church, a moment that at its core has been produced by the sin of a church that is called in its every essence to reflect holiness to the world. At every level in the life of the church, we are confronting elements of rot and corrosion and need for radical reform in our ecclesial community that can regenerate the reality of missionary discipleship that is the vocation of every Christian.

At such a moment, the theology of the church must be imbued with a deep humility rooted in the recognition that our church is truly the pilgrim people of God, seeking ever deeper understanding of the pathway to which the Lord is guiding us.

Our theology must incorporate the vocation of the laity as the centerpiece of the church’s action in the world, and in doing so reject the clericalism that has imprisoned the church and created a blindness to the failings and dominance of a clerical caste system that on so many levels mocks the servant priesthood of Jesus Christ, who was servant to all, brother to all in their concrete needs and suffering.

A theology for the present age must look to the future and engage the young, the marginalized and the alienated with special fervor, never being content to recede into a smaller, purer church that is unwilling to risk grappling with the world in the light of the Gospel that was brought to all nations.  Perhaps, most importantly,  we need a theology for the present moment that is deeply pastoral at its heart, expressed more fully by its understanding of the dynamic of mercy and grace that God brings into the concrete lives of men and women, that by its syllogisms and doctrinal formulations.

It is my belief that the theological method and content preached by Pope Francis for the past five years points us toward just such a theology.

The pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects the traditional prism that focused pastoral theology on the work of priests, or even on a more generalized notion of pastoral ministry in the internal life of the church. In a very real way, the architects of pastoral theology in the writings of Pope Francis include the whole body of the faithful in relationship with God, and the datum of pastoral theology is the lived experience of the faithful in the concrete call of their discipleship. Such a transposition is essential in the current moment for our church, for clericalism is radically at the heart of the multi-dimensional crisis that the Catholic community faces today.

The very nature of the church involves at its heart pastoral action to heal the hearts of men and women who are suffering. Pope Francis outlined this ecclesiological assertion in his beautiful description of the church itself as a field hospital: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. And you have to start from the ground up. This is the mission of the church: the church heals, it cures. . . The mission of the church is to heal wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the Father.”

From the pastoral vision of Francis flows a strategy of engagement and accompaniment with the world that at the same time seeks always its own need for healing and grace amidst its sinfulness.


Guest contributor Robert W. McElroy is the Bishop of San Diego, Calif., and this column is drawn from his address “The Pastoral Revolution of Pope Francis: The Challenge for the Academy in Today’s Humbled Church," given at Sacred Heart University.