The Pope Exhorts: This Could Be the Heart of the Matter

ImageEvery page of Evangelii Gaudium brings fresh insights into the road map being sketched by Pope Francis.  As we continue deeper into Chapter One, we come to a section entitled “Pastoral Activity and Conversion,” which takes us from paragraphs 25 to 33.  In these few paragraphs, however, I think we see the seeds of the institutional reform the Pope is undertaking.  In my opinion, the structural reforms being suggested here might wind up being the very heart of the document itself.

The pope’s humor begins the section. “I am aware that nowadays documents do not arouse the same interest as in the past and that they are quickly forgotten.”  But he’s going write one anyway; why? “I want to emphasize that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences” (#25).  It seems clear that the pope is not interested in writing something that only scholars will read in a theoretical context and then put back on the dusty shelf.  This document is different: it is a call to action that he hopes will affect every person, parish, diocese, religious community and even his own ministry as successor to Peter.  It is supposed to be a PRACTICAL document, one that could used to develop new structures, new programs, new pastoral activities.

I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough.  Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission’.  

This citation is from the so-called “Aparecida Document”, which was the closing statement of the last gathering of the bishops of Latin America, held in Brazil in 2007, and in which then-Cardinal Bergoglio played a major role.  Some have already referred to this Document as a blueprint for Pope Francis’ papacy; you may read it all here.

Francis invokes Pope Paul VI, who, early in his own papacy, spoke not only of personal, individual renewal and conversion, but of a renewal which affects the entire Church.  This will mean digging deeply into the very nature of who we are as Church, and purging ourselves of those things which are not in keeping with that nature, or which impede us from living out the implications of that identity.  Pope Francis cites Vatican II’s document on Ecumenism: “Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way. . . to that continual reformation of which she is always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth.”  Pope Francis then adds his own voice: “There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them.”

For Pope Francis, all renewal in the Church must be assessed by how well (or not) the Church is able to evangelize: that’s the standard.  If something helps us to be better evangelizers, fine; if it is holding us back from evangelizing, or is distorting the message, it must be abandoned.

“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything…. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response for all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (#27).

This is not a new idea, of course.  Pope John XXIII often spoke of this great mission, and Paul VI, cited here by Francis, once said, “All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.”

OK, so mission is the standard that we are to use.  The Pope now applies this standard to parishes, other religious groups and movements, and dioceses.  He writes of the parish, for example, as NOT being an outdated institution “precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.”  Notice that the pope seemed willing to accuse parishes of being an “outdated institution”: he is doing what some people in the business world refer to as a “zero based review”, not taking anything as a given.  Parishes, however, are NOT outdated for the reasons he gives.  But he’s not done yet.  “This presumes that [the parish] really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few” (#28).  Parishes, he writes are to be a community of evangelizing communities, but he admits that “the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to people. . . to make them completely mission-oriented.”

The Pope applies this same standard to “other Church institutions, basic communities and small communities, movements, and forms of association”, and he also challenges them all to stay connected with the local parish and to be part of the local community.  Frequently certain movements have become divisive and present themselves as alternatives to a local parish; the pope is saying this must not happen.  He then turns to the renewal of dioceses and their bishops — always with the language of pastoral, evangelizing mission.popeandpatriarch

However, this section ends with what I believe may wind up being one of the most significant parts of the entire document; namely, the pope’s comments on his own ministry.  In paragraph #32, he writes, “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.”  To understand what is going on here in proper context, it is useful to remember two other documents.  First, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (“That All May Be One”), promulgated in 1995; you can read it all here.  In that document, John Paul asked theologians, bishops and others for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”  Unfortunately, Pope Francis acknowledges, “we have made little progress in this regard.”  Retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn has written and spoken extensively in response to this call, on how more ancient patterns of church governance might be adapted to contemporary needs, but in practical terms, little has been done to implement such changes.  You can find Archbishop Quinn’s books here and here.

The pope, however, suggests that movement may lie ahead.  He cites Vatican II’s recognition of the various regional episcopal conferences, but acknowledges that things have not gone far enough in that regard. “[A] juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates he Church’s life and her missionary outreach.”  Here’s where the second text may be helpful.  In 1988, Pope John Paul II promulgated a document entitled Apostolos Suos “On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences.”  Read it here.  In this document, the pope directs that an episcopal conference can only issue genuine doctrinal statements of magisterial authority if all the bishops are unanimous in their support of such teaching; if at least 2/3 of the bishops are in support, the the matter is to be referred to the Holy See for promulgation.  This is the very document that would have to be addressed as the pope and his advisors initiate renewal of the structures of the Holy See, and as he proceeds with the “sound decentralization” he spoke of in the Introduction to this text.Image

Imagine, for example, if matters related to episcopal appointments were handled — as they were until the 19th Century — by the local churches?  How might liturgical matters be handled in the future?

This is a classic reflection on the nature of collegiality and subsidiarity within the Church.  What are those matters which are best handled at a national, regional, diocesan or even parish level, and which are those matters best dealt with by the Holy See?  It is quite clear that Pope Francis is committed, and is committing all church structures, to a reform that will prune away those aspects which impede the church’s mission of evangelization.

It will be interesting and exciting to see how matters develop!


Personally, I find it very helpful to be reminded that it all boils down to mission, to evangelization.  Starting at a personal level, I must always be ready to spread the Good News; being a part of the Church is about being part of a People who are dedicated to the service of others in THEIR need, not my own.  As an “evangelizing community”, our parishes are also subject to conversion and renewal with one view in mind: the care of others in the name of Christ.  We don’t exist for ourselves but for others.  During this Advent, how can I and how can we better streamline ourselves for mission?  What do we need to reform in our personal and church lives to be evangelizers who take the initiative, are involved and supportive of people in their need, are patient and fruitful, and full of joy?  FOCUS ON THE MISSION!

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