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.