He’s been lauded for living in the Vatican hotel, making personal phone calls to strangers, being inclusive to homosexuals and women, and speaking nicely about atheists. He’s been compared to Princess Diana and was listed as the most talked-about person in 2013. Like I said, rock star.
Pope Francis’ words and actions bespeak a tectonic shift in who becomes a bishop and, thus, who shapes Catholicism.
That’s not to say the Catholic Church doesn’t have a loooooonnnnnng way to go in terms of a substantive evolution in its teachings, but we have to remember that change in the Vatican often takes centuries, not seconds. And more change could be on the way.
A pope’s legacy in the Catholic Church is often measured by the bishops he chooses. These bishops, in turn, become the next several popes, molding the Vatican and thus, Catholicism. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI enforced orthodoxy. Pope Francis is going for messages about living simply, having mercy and focusing on a personal relationship with God. Could he sprinkle some of his rock-star dust onto his bishops? Let’s hope so.
He’s very clearly and emphatically recalibrated public expectation of what bishops are going to be like.
In June, Pope Francis gave a speech to papal ambassadors around the world, the lead people picking new bishops. He said he wanted pastors who carry “the smell of the sheep,” not bishops who have the “psychology of a prince.” John Allen Jr., National Catholic Reporter’s senior correspondent, explains that Pope Francis means he wants those who “share the experience of ordinary people, who are out in the neighborhoods, out in the streets, meeting people where they live.” Just this past Monday, Francis’ new tone was reiterated at the United States’ first national bishop meeting since Francis was elected. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., said the pope told him bishops should be inclusive and welcoming and not “follow a particular ideology.”
By living humbly himself, and placing an emphasis on service above all else, the pope has already gone a long way toward raising the bar. “These days, if a bishop anywhere on the planet is photographed flying business class, for example, he can guarantee within five minutes a blog is going to say, ’Hey, this is not consistent with what the pope is saying,’” says Allen. He points to the example of the German bishop who was suspended after spending more than $41 million on his residence. ”Public opinion came down on him like a ton of bricks. Part of it is the comparison with Francis. He’s very clearly and emphatically recalibrated public expectation of what bishops are going to be like.”
“For the last 30-plus years, there was a very well understood set of criteria for advancement to the episcopacy: Toe the party line on celibacy, women priests and contraception,” explains Michael Bayer, a church observer with degrees in theology from Georgetown University and UC Berkeley. “We have a generation of bishops who see themselves not primarily as pastors but as guardians of orthodoxy. Pope Francis’ words and actions bespeak a massive tectonic shift in who becomes a bishop. From all of his indications, it appears a new type of bishop could be forthcoming.”
He’s showing people what Catholicism can be. And that’s already changed the church.
Vincent Miller, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in Catholic theology and culture, says Pope Francis is not necessarily advocating a more moderate form of faith; rather, he’s just shifting the focus of the church. The pope recently made headlines with his September interview when he said, “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.”
“It’s a particular understanding of what Christianity is about,” says Miller. ”He’s pointing people to that relationship with God, and it’s up to them to have a conversation with God about what their life is about.” Miller says that though Pope Francis is asking something different of bishops than what John Paul II and Benedict XVI did, this doesn’t mean the same people who have been enforcing orthodoxy can’t become the pastoral bishops Francis is asking for. It just means that after conducting themselves one way for a majority of their lives, it may take time to shift their priorities.
Even though the change isn’t swift, Miller says, what the pope’s done in less than a year is profound. ”I remember going to the Guardian newspaper and seeing their top quote was Pope Francis saying ’I am a sinner.’ The Guardian finding that interesting? That’s a fascinating change. He’s showing people what Catholicism can be. And that’s already changed the church.”
Pope Francis is also enforcing a new spirit of collegiality within the church hierarchy, an organization known for its top-down, monarchical model. He appointed a team of eight cardinals from around the world to debate church reform — a move widely seen as a revolutionary change in church governance. This Council of Cardinals suggested a new form of synod (a global meeting of Catholic bishops) with greater opportunities for participation. Synods in the past were criticized for being mere formalities largely orchestrated by Rome, and the opinions were largely written even before the meetings occurred.
Pope Francis has called a new two-part synod, focusing on the family, for 2014 and 2015. At the first meeting the bishops can float ideas and debate concepts, then go back and consult with their parishioners. A year later, they return to work on proposals for action. Synods have always had questionnaires associated with them, but Allen says ”nobody took them seriously” in the past because of how they were run. But this year’s questionnaire made mainstream media headlines because, Allen and Miller agree, people feel the pope is actually interested in the answers people will give, and they sense that he will listen. The questions cover social issues like contraception, unmarried cohabitation, same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage in the church. In the world of Catholic Church observers, word on the street is this synod could be a real “game-changer” for the Vatican.
John Esposito, president of the American Academy of Religion and a professor of theology at Georgetown, says Pope Francis is attracting not only Catholics, but also people of other faiths. Esposito believes this is because the pope is emphasizing the Jesus of the Gospels, who he says was not about hierarchy and doctrine but about compassion and love, especially for those who were excluded from society. “If anything, he was a critic of orthodoxy and the religious hierarchy of his time.” Esposito thinks Pope Francis’ crucial imprint on the church isn’t only in his effect on bishops and the formation of collegial councils, but also in forging a path for future popes to follow in his footsteps. “He can be a bridge to what comes after him.”
Pope Francis recently said, “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope.” And maybe that walk is getting a little bounce in its step.
Four weeks after this story was published, the Vatican announced significant changes to the Congregation for Bishops, the influential team that recommends who becomes bishops. Pope Francis ousted the ultraconservative culture warrior Cardinal Raymond Burke and U.S. bishopmaker Cardinal Justin Rigali, who has faced much criticism over how he’s dealt with clergy sex abuse. He’s replaced them with more pastoral individuals, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz and notably kept on Cardinal William Levada. This shake-up in Rome is an important one, and while of course the Catholic Church still has a way to go in terms of female clergy and multiple social justice issues, the pontiff’s shuffling of bishops shows how he can — slowly — transform Catholicism.
Why you should care
Pope Francis + A New Type of Bishop = A Revitalized Catholic Church. With more than 1 billion Catholics in the world, this could have lasting international impact.