At 86, Pope Francis, is the oldest Pontiff in over 120 years. Last June, he underwent serious surgery and has made a remarkable recovery. His words and actions, in recent weeks exemplify a man, who is on fire with the Holy Spirit. His recent visit to Portugal, where he encountered over 1,000,000 young people, in Lisbon, was a breath of fresh air. We belong to a Universal Church, rich in diversity, representative of so many cultures and traditions. It is a foolish mistake, just to focus on our island, when we reflect about what it is to be a member of the Church. It also helps us breathe with a wider context and inform our thinking in a richer and more positive vineyard.
Pope Francis major theme while speaking in Portugal, was one of welcome and inclusion especially to those on the periphery. “There is room in the church for everyone, everyone, everyone; not just the perfect but sinners too”. He urged all of us to “Replace our doubts with dreams, none of us should remain hostages to our fears and insecurities but humbly we are commissioned to set about working to realise positive goals”. He reminded Church leadership, that the radical Jesus of Nazareth, was one who led by example love and compassion. Challenging clergy present he said, “I do not like rigidity because it is a bad symptom of interior life the priest cannot afford to be rigid, the Priest must be ready for whatever comes along and most importantly keep the doors of the Church open to everyone”.
Ten years ago Pope Francis was God’s unexpected gift to his Church. His reforming spirit has become a heartening symbol of promise and possibility. In a mere decade, Francis has become a beacon of hope and joy in my life with his refreshing re-adoption of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. So with a Pope in a hurry to get things done, what can we expect from the synod in Rome in 2023-4? This is very much a synod that is based on a model of collaboration, discernment and representative of the people of God.
I suggest ten signs of change;
1. REFORM; There’s an ever-growing consensus that significant and wide-ranging reforms are not just advisable but essential to arrest what often seems like the terminal decline of the Catholic Church. In the developed world, vocations are down to a trickle and may effectively disappear; religious practice has decreased and continues to decrease; and the authority of the Church has been undermined disastrously by the sexual abuse scandals.
2. SYNODALITY; The adoption of a Synodal approach to Church governance is now in hand, fuelled by the robust support of Pope Francis who regards it as ‘the (only) way of being Church for the Third Millennium’. Whereas in the past, decisions were handed down from above by Pope, Bishop, Parish Priest and Reverend Mother, now a Synodal approach is proposed for the baptised to walk together – by together listening attentively to all voices, by together discussing issues, by together deciphering the direction God’s Spirit is guiding and by together making decisions.
3. SYNOD; The worldwide Synodal pathway of the last few years concluded with reports from each diocese summarised into national reports. These in turn were summarised into continental reports which led to the preparatory document for the Synod of 2023-4. The whole process of consultation has surfaced an extraordinarily similar worldwide programme for change: inclusiveness, accountability, transparency, the role of women in the church, LGBTQ+ issues, the ordination of married men, etc.
4. SYNOD-plus; The working document for the October 2023 Synod is exceptional in that unlike previous synods it sets out the characteristics of a Synodal Church – welcoming, listening, locally focussed, humble, discerning and comfortable with tensions. It then presents a series of priorities that have already emerged not as teachings or assertions but simply as questions to help the Church to discern the way forward. The October 2024 Synod declared intention is to make decisions on ‘new paths to follow’.
5. CARDINALS; Another sign of change is the timely announcement by Pope Francis of a consistory in which he will appoint 21 new cardinals this September bringing the number to 137, 70-plus% of whom Francis himself has appointed and who accept the need for change.
6. OPPOSITION; An indication of the tide turning is the opposition to change coming from predictable quarters: church men of a certain perspective – conservative, ultra-conservative, traditional and ultra-traditional, are becoming progressively more shrill in their ritual condemnations of Pope Francis and his reforms. Just as Pope John XXIII was called a heretic for convening the Second Vatican Council, Francis is being subjected to the same abuse for seeking to implement it.
7. THEOLOGIANS; The John Paul-Benedict years saw the diminishment of theologians into cheer-leaders for whatever enthusiasm was the signature tune of the then current pontificate. The oppressive control of those years was represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) now in the process of being reformed as part of the new Francis dawn. Theologians are now free to say what they think and no longer have to hold up a wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.
8. INCLUSION; The heart of the Gospel is one of welcome and inclusion. A church that embraces all peoples but especially those who feel on the outside. The Holy Father says that “inclusion should be the first ‘rock’ on which to build our house”. The Pope quotes his 2020 encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti (“All Brothers”), to point out that inclusion must always be considered.
9. DEVELOPMENT OF DOCTRINE; In the past a myth was carefully constructed to the effect that the teaching of the Catholic Church never changed and couldn’t change. That approach no longer has substance thanks to theologians who were prepared to indicate that over the centuries the precise opposite was the case. It is clear that engaging with the changing world we live in, as Vatican Two suggested, means accepting inevitable changes in church teaching.
10. THE PEOPLE OF GOD; It is clear now, both anecdotally and from a plethora of surveys, that Catholics generally are open to change and are becoming increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of change. Leadership in the movement towards a Synodal Church will come from ‘lay’ Catholics – if they are given the chance. If not, it won’t happen.
Though Francis is 86, even after 3-hour surgery in June, he shows no sign of letting up. After a long winter, spring is coming. The oldest serving pope in 120 years is in a hurry to get things done before God calls him home.