Timothy Radcliffe: Pope Francis points to a “new way of being Church”

The esteemed Dominican concludes his reflection on the Pope Francis interview with this note:

Pope Francis says that “the structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterwards. The first reform must be the attitude.” Structural change to the government of the church is vital, but it must follow from a new way of being church, in which we get out of the sacristy, engage with people, know their suffering and their puzzlement from within. At this stage, the pope is showing the way forward by what he does. He has a capacity to make expansive gestures that open up new perspectives. His first trip outside Rome was a visit to Lampedusa, where so many immigrants have died trying to enter Europe; or think of his visit to the favella in Rio de Janeiro. Christianity is a religion of sacramental gestures, the pouring of water and the breaking of bread, and his gestures are powerful in opening up the future.

This new way of being church will eventually have to find structural form. Pope Francis says: “The dicasteries of the Roman Curia are at the service of the pope and the bishops.” It has not always felt this way! Cardinal Hume said that the bishops must cease to be at the service of the pope and the Roman Curia, but rather the Curia serve the government of the pope and the bishops. This implies that the pope ceases to be a monarch, presiding over the church from a remote height, and becomes again the bishop of Rome, embedded in the college of bishops. From the moment that he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, Francis has shown that this is his intention. So this papacy could mark the most fundamental change in the governance of the church in centuries, from monarchy to collegiality. Much of Pope Emeritus Benedict’s theology of the church implied shift. Francis wishes to do it. He insists on the return to models of synodal government and on real consoltation. Lay people will have a voice, as they often did in the early church. We must have patience as the form of this new structure and dynamic unfolds.

I would conclude with two profound hopes. That a way will be found to welcome divorced and remarried people back to communion. And, most important, that women will be given real authority and voice in the church. The pope expresses his desire that this may happen, but what concrete form can it take? He believes that the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood is not possible, but decision-making in the church has become ever more closely linked to ordination in recent years. Can that bond be loosened? Let us hope that women may be ordained to the diaconate and so have a place in preaching at the Eucharist. What other ways can authority be shared?

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