Finding space for the People of God

Pope Francis challenges us to move from old complacency

There has been much discussion about the need for reform and renewal in the Church. Some people prefer the term ‘reform’ with the dramatic connotations that this words brings up. Others, prefer the idea of a ‘renewal’ in the Church. Interestingly, Pope Francis uses a different word: he speaks of ‘transformation’.

In his recent extraordinary apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium which amounts to a ‘call to action’ for Catholics, the Pope writes “I dream of a ‘missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world, rather than for her self-preservation.” In other words: the Church exists, not for its own self, but for the sake of the world and to carry out the mission entrusted to it.


Pope Francis paints a compelling, if challenging, vision of the Church. It’s a challenge to move away from complacency and old-fashioned ways of doing things. In short: it’s a challenge for everyone to move out of comfort zones.

The Pope has already signalled that he wants to change how the Church does its business. The realignment of the Roman Curia and a new relationship between the lo- cal Church and the Vatican will play an important part in how the Church is transformed. Here, the right appointments will be vitally important. In the Church, governance is about personnel as much as real estate is about

Archbishop Eamon Martin shares a joke with Bishop Anthony Farquhar during last month’s meeting of the hierarchy at Maynooth.

location. Francis will want to appoint men to senior positions within the Church who share his vision. He will have to be careful that the men he appoints truly share his vision rather than the ubiquitous career clerics who slavishly support whatever is in vogue in the hope of preferment for promotion.


Francis has already expressed his view that excessive concentration of power in Rome is damaging the Church’s mission. He has called for a “sound decentralisation” of Church governance.

It’ll be interesting to see how that decentralisation might play out. Former Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey famously described his plan to decentralise gov- ernment departments as “not rocket science”. Nevertheless, even Mr McCreevey’s sup- porters would now acknowledge that the plan was an unmitigated disaster. To say that local bishops’ conferences have been less than impressive in exercising their authority would be to put it mildly. When the Vatican does intervene, like in the case of Fr Tony Flannery, for example, it is usually because an issue has not been handled locally.

Vatican officials will privately admit that they are loath to intervene in issues affecting the local Church, yet, they argue, a tendency among bishops and religious superiors to do nothing and hope for the best often forces Rome to act.

As well as the reform of the Roman Curia and the relationship with the local Church, there is a piercing need to give real voice to the concerns of laypeople within the Church. Pope Francis has said that the Church must pay attention to the sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful) when exercising its teaching authority, but never confuse that sense with popular opinion on matters of faith.

The Pope said the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority, has the “duty to pay attention to what the Spirit tells the Church through authentic manifestations of the ‘sense of the faithful’”.

But, he also warned that this sense “must not be confused with the sociological reality of majority opinion.”


The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium speaks of structures established by the Church so that laypeople can “express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church”. Yet, despite the fact that 2014 will mark the 50th anniversary of this document, the structures are precious few and often ‘stacked’ with people who will say ‘the right thing’.

During a 2012 visit to Mexico, Pope Benedict took up the theme of lay involvement within the Church and attacked the vice of clericalism. “It is not right,” he said, for lay people “to feel treated like second-class citizens in the Church despite the committed work which they carry out in accordance with their proper vocation, and the great sacrifice which this dedication at times demands of them.”

Cardinal John Henry New- man once famously said that the “Church would look foolish without the laity”. It’s time that this was taken seriously and the vision of Vatican II of a Church based on co-responsibility to emerge and take shape.

Oh, and it won’t do just to include those voices we enjoy hearing from or set up associations of like-minded individuals sitting around reassuring one another in their views.

Everyone needs to be challenged.