Fr Timothy Radcliffe offers his vision of the Church
The first thing that strikes you about Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, world renowned theologian, distinguished New Testament scholar and writer whose books have impressed Pope Francis, is his presence and serenity.
He is a person of peace and faith who wants to share that peace of Christ and faith with others in an unforced and open way.
His authority, eloquence and wit make him such a sought after speaker worldwide that it is something of a coup for Fr Edward O’Donnell PP to have persuaded him to deliver a lecture on Pope Francis and the Church’s future in St Brigid’s Parish, Belfast.
Such is his drawing power that around 400 people, including Bishop Noel Treanor, auxiliary Bishop Tony Farquhar and Baroness Nuala O’Loan turned up and the event had to be switched from the parish hall to the more capacious adjoining church.
He spoke for a riveting 55 minutes and stayed another 40 to answer questions taking time to leave the lectern and see the whites of the eyes of the questioners seated throughout the church.
Consistent with his Dominican charism, Fr Radcliffe (68) is clearly anxious to listen to what people are saying whether a parishioner come to hear him, a journalist conducting an interview or one of the 6,500 of his brothers worldwide he conversed with in private for 30 minutes each during his years as Master of the Order 1992-2001.
He is the only member of the English Province to be elected Master or worldwide leader of the Order founded by St Dominic the first Master in 1216.
He once wrote: “Obedience means listening, and listening deeply…. We need to listen deeply to God, to the hierarchy, to the poor, to our charism.”
On another occasion: “… a good conversation implies that you not only share your faith but that you listen to the other person and that you are open to what he or she can teach you. We only have authority if we recognise the authority of the people with whom we talk.”
The morning after the lecture we met in St Brigid’s presbytery to reflect and elaborate on some of the insights he had shared the evening before.
Few if any in this part of the world are as qualified to assess this Pope who has grabbed the attention of the world ever since his election almost a year ago.
During his lecture Fr Radcliffe mentioned in passing that he had spent 40 minutes with Pope Francis last November. Questioned next day it transpired he had been invited to the Vatican by the Pope himself who wanted to pick his brains in private though he is to too modest to say that.
“It [the meeting] came about because he likes my books and he wanted to thank me.”
They spoke in Spanish but on what he would only say: “I am happy to keep it confidential. I think Popes have the right to have their own time when they can chat about what is on their minds without anybody telling anybody afterwards.”
Has the Pope ever phoned him, I wonder. “No but I’ve have got an e-mail from him.”
He had already known him as Archbishop Bergoglio and had regular meetings with his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The most memorable aspect of the meeting was “his tranquillity.”
“He is somebody who is a fellow disciple, a fellow searcher who is strong enough to give you space. He is not a controlling personality [but] is a strong personality.”
Fr Radcliffe’s central message is that Pope Francis believes that there must be radical changes in the running of the Church.
But he doesn’t have a blueprint notwithstanding his key decisions to move out of the Apostolic Palace, set up the Council of Cardinals, and signal greater authority for episcopal conferences and a transformation of role of the Synod of Bishops.
Believing “there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit” he wants to let the Spirit “guide and direct us ….wherever he wills.” (Evangelii Gaudium 280).
He sees a decisive move away from “a monarchical Papacy” to “a government of the Church that is not trying to rule everything”.
“The government of the Church has to make sure that the bullies don’t rule, the frightened don’t rule, fashion doesn’t rule, the media don’t rule…”
He recalls Francis told the Dutch bishops only half of Vatican II has been implemented and sees big moves in the area of collegiality as the Pope “wants us to re-think with him the role of the papacy”.
“I think he wants to put the Bishop of Rome back into the College of Bishops.”
Fr Radcliffe sees consideration being given to Blessed John Henry Newman’s threefold concept of authority around Tradition, Reason and devotional religious experience.
A Magisterium of the Theologians which emerged before Benedict’s resignation could “absolutely” lead to women theologians having an important role in Church decision making and the issue of women deacons is being considered.
Could the Holy Spirit ever guide the Church towards ordaining women priests? “Who knows? I really don’t know.”
“I think we live in a society which is only at the beginning of understanding the difference between men and women.”
It was easy for the media to mistakenly see the Pope like a politician such as David Cameron with a political programme.
“Pope Francis is strong enough not to be pushed around into making premature decisions. If you want to grow a tree you must let it take its time.”
He discounts curial opposition to Francis and detects “just a slight contrast” between him and Benedict with both “having a humble understanding of the papacy” and neither believing “they were free to do whatever they wanted”.
Benedict stressed “fidelity to tradition” and saw the role of the papacy “to be the memory of the Church”. Francis stresses “obedience to the unpredictable grace of the Holy Spirit which takes you to where you do not know”.
“I think that is a difference of temperament rather than a contradiction because you always go back to go forward, Vatican II went back to the Fathers and to the Bible in order to go forwards.”
The clerical sex abuse scandals were not mentioned by Fr Radcliffe at St Brigid’s and no one seemed to notice.
Asked if he thought this indicated how far the Church had appeared to have come in addressing the scandals he hoped so.
“It has obviously been the biggest crisis the Church has had for centuries and it has demanded of us that we look at ourselves with very clear eyes. I hope it will have really made the Church a safe place for children now.”
On the sharp decline in priestly vocations Fr Radcliffe remarked: “There has been a bit of a revival. I gave the retreat last year at Maynooth and it is a small number (of seminarians) but I was deeply impressed by them. None of them are there because they wanted status and many had been in previously well paid jobs like banking or the media.”
“Everybody has a vocation and you have to discern what it is.”
When it was put to him though that only priests could celebrate the Eucharist he said it was important to put things in perspective. In a Dominican parish in central Manila two priests serve 100,000 parishioners who come in their tens of thousands for Mass each Sunday.
Timothy Radcliffe is a passionate Dominican attracted to the order “by our motto, Truth, but it is a spacious, dynamic Truth which calls us ever onwards”.
He celebrates what G.K. Chesterton called “the romance of orthodoxy”.
“Being orthodox is not getting it all wrapped up [but] being involved in a Mystery that remains for ever beyond our words.”
Where is the Church almost one year after the election of Francis?
“We are off on an adventure and we don’t know where it is going to take us and that is much better than knowing.”
Timothy Radcliffe believes that it is an adventure that should fill us with joy notwithstanding the bumps along the way.