Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Challenges of the "Francis Effect"

It seems to me that the so-called “Francis effect” (the modus operandi of Pope Francis) has had little influence on the agenda, statements, and actions of most Bishops’ conferences around the world, including the United States Catholic Conference.

Most of the People of God, especially the laity, however, are enthralled. And their acceptance of his papacy rests on more than the media's misrepresentations of what the pope has said and done since the evening he first appeared on the Vatican balcony.

The “Francis effect” is an echo of the “effect” of the Gospel, of the style of Jesus, of the values of the Kingdom as presented by the Christ.

Papa Francesco’s papal style challenges the old mind-set and  the bureaucracy of many Church leaders. He begins with people not law. He advocates simplicity. He admits we do not have all the answers. He questions whether the answers we have are in every case the correct or appropriate ones. He puts aside the royal airs and aristocratic bearing of some of our previous popes. His lifestyle is a threat to the episcopal lifestyle and wealth of some Church leaders. He does not fear to act, to move and remove, to tackle the tough issues of Church and world.

I suspect that some  bishops are thinking (maybe hoping) that Francis won’t last long, that his papacy is an anomaly, that his successor will take us back to the way things were. Such reasoning, however, is baseless. It is well known that “You can’t go back;” you can resist change or you can move ahead, but you can’t go back.

As the number of pastoral bishops increases during the Francis’ years, so the mindset among bishops will alter. Many of those in the chief pastoral office of their dioceses have never been parish pastors. Their degrees in Canon Law or their careers in bureaucracy have formed their attitudes and their vision of what it means to be Church.

Francis urges the People of God to ongoing discernment, to recognize that some Church customs are no longer meaningful or useful, even that some Church precepts “should be insisted upon with moderation ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’ and make our religion a form of servitude” (Joy of the Gospel, 43).

A couple US Bishops have banned the hymn “All Are Welcome” on the grounds that it sends a false message. Francis says, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always open wide” (Joy of the Gospel, 47).

Many bishops are so protective of the Church, perhaps so fearful of the Curia, that they hesitate to act, except perhaps in raising money or binding their people to strict interpretation of Canon Law. Francis says, “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 clinging to its own security” (Joy of the Gospel, 49).

Francis urged bishops to enter into pastoral dialogue “out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear” (Joy of the Gospel, 31).

It is clear that Pope Francis is urging on Church leaders and all the People of God a new way of doing business.

The outcome of this new expression of papal leadership, the results of the “Francis effect” still lie in the future, but over time this papacy will have its influence on bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity alike –not because it is new or challenging, but because it is Gospel-based, reflective of the values of the Kingdom. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

Jesus’ style was troubling to the religious leaders of his day. He promoted mercy, forgiveness and love. His priorities did not ignore Torah but they definitely challenged and changed some aspects of what was once thought the only way.

The “Francis effect,” however slowly it is implemented, will be effective because it echoes the “Jesus effect,” and Jesus simply will not go away.

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