About ten years ago I was writing a novel. It was a “papal potboiler”–a thriller about “Petrus Romaus” the final pope from the so called prophecies of St Malachy. I finished the rough draft and then gave up once I realized that 1.that the papal potboiler was a ho hum sub genre of the airport novel thriller 2. that writing a novel like that was like climbing Everest, but getting it published was like climbing Everest again 3. I was no good at writing fiction.
Anyhow, my hero–the pope who followed the pope who followed John Paul II was a mysterious and humble Cardinal from South America. One of the things he did when he became Pope was that he established a new “Apostolic Council” made up of twelve eminent cardinals from around the world to help him rule the church. Amongst them he was “first among equals”. I was therefore intrigued this morning to read Sandro Magister’s article here about how Pope Francis is likely to reform the church. Hey presto! He suggests that one of the reasons Pope Francis is stressing his being the Bishop of Rome is to downplay the global dimension of the papal office and bring into play a more influential role of the already existing Synod of Bishops.
We automatically think of the “reform of the curia” as a negative purgation of the ruling structures of the church. We think heads will roll and offices closed. We think of financial and moral audits taking place and the judgment of the Lord. However, the reform of the church could be, and should be, a much smarter, much more creative and much more positive process. Reform happens best when it is teamed with renewal. Instead of just getting rid of what’s bad the good leader creates such a positive and pro active and forward moving renewal and restructuring that the corruption and old practices–the negativity and narrow mindedness simply don’t work anymore. The positive forward motion becomes irresistible and those who can’t or won’t keep up with it simply get left behind or get out.
Pope Francis could bring forward a ruling council of cardinals around the world–bringing into partnership the finest minds and best men the church has in order to reform and renew the workings of the church–not by simply cleaning house, but by re-orienting the whole thing in a new and fresh direction.
An international “Apostolic Council” with twelve men from around the world would have a grand significance, and would also be a perfect way to re-establish the pattern of the early church where the Bishop of Rome was one patriarch amongst four. Furthermore, it could be the perfect way for the Eastern Orthodox to be re-united with the Catholic faith. Pope Francis has already referred to the Greek patriarch Bartholomew as “my brother Andrew”, and “Andrew” could very well sit at the table with the other members of the Apostolic Council, bringing on board the Eastern Orthodox.
Such a synod of bishops or “Apostolic Council” would also answer the charge that the papacy is an absolute monarchy which is really controlled by the petty and often mediocre civil servants of the curia. If there were such an “Apostolic Council” then the different curial offices might be answerable to one of the members of the Apostolic Council.
Of course all this is speculation, and what do I know about it anyway? My main point is that whatever happens, we can be assured that Pope Francis is a smart guy with firm ideas. His reform needn’t be the frightening overhaul with negative repercussions so many envision. Instead it could be a fresh start with new ideas, put into effect with strong and positive leadership for the good of the whole church.
Furthermore, the manner of reform could influence the way the leadership of the church works elsewhere. Rather than bad decisions being made by one person who controls everything, a more consultative approach to governance would trickle down to the rest of the church. The structures for this are already there within the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but too many bishops and priests still operate according to the old “military” or “monarchical” style of leadership. You know: “It’s my way or the highway.” An example of positive, consultative leadership–where the leader really does consult and refer to the experts who are there to assist him–could show the way forward, being properly consultative without being “democratic.”
This style of leadership avoids both the tyranny of the individual and the tyranny of the mob. This conciliar form of governance is also what is found in the New Testament. The Council of Jerusalem, and the first councils of the church show this form of leadership in action. It is a truly, historically Catholic approach, and one given by the Lord himself–where he presided at the Last Supper, but surrounded himself with the Apostolic Council.
Should such a scenario develop then Pope Francis will not simply be reforming the curia, but will bring a reform and renewal to the whole church.