Good news for the whole world

Good news for the whole world Pope Francis on the night of his election at the Vatican
The Pope in Ireland
Pope Francis is a Pope for a truly global Church, writes 
Prof. Eamonn Conway


The World Meeting of Families coincides with news of shameful sex crimes by clergy against children and vulnerable adults in the USA in recent past decades. At first glance it might seem that little progress has been made in reforming the Church in the past few years. Fair-minded people will accept, however, that this is not the case.

The first inkling Pope Francis had that he might become Pope, he has said, was when cardinals started asking him leading questions, over lunch, especially in regard to his health. He was elected in the fifth ballot on the second day.

It was his intervention at the meeting of cardinals on March 7 that catapulted him into the see of Peter, much in the same way Joseph Ratzinger’s homily, prior to the 2005 conclave, made him the obvious choice to succeed John Paul II. In that homily, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism” and the indispensability of an adult Faith capable of resisting “the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult Faith deeply rooted in friendship with Christ”.

To the cardinals entering conclave in 2005 the ‘enemy’ seemed to lie ‘without.’ The threat of communism had been replaced by that of secularism, which had taken its toll on Faith practice especially in Europe. The felt need was for a compelling presentation of Church teaching by an intellect capable of articulating the beauty, truth, goodness, sheer logic and rationality of Christian faith. The job spec was for someone who would counter the ideological currents and bogus ‘isms’ that diminish authentic human existence and eclipse the reality of God’s presence. There was no cardinal considered better equipped to do this than Joseph Ratzinger.

There had already been over a decade of abuse scandals. Apart from those in Ireland, in 1998 the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, had been accused of horrific sexual violence, and in 2002 Cardinal Law of Boston had been forced to resign over cover-ups. Nonetheless there was a sense, now recognised as mistaken, that such matters were being dealt with adequately.

Moreover, John Paul II had gone out of his way to apologise and seek repentance on the part of the Church for its failures, especially during the Year of Jubilee 2000 (for those who doubt this, read When a Pope asks for Forgiveness: the Mea Culpas of John Paul II by Luigi Accattoli).


In 2005, after some 28 years of Pope John Paul II’s governance, the overall impression the cardinals had, therefore, was the need for ‘more of the same’. Continuity, as Cardinal Kasper later confirmed, was considered paramount because outwardly the Church appeared to be in good shape. In reality, however, as Kasper admits, the internal dysfunction that prompted Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation eight years later was already festering beneath the surface.

As the cardinals entered conclave in 2013 it was generally accepted that this time the enemy lay ‘within’. The previous year, 2012, had been Benedict XVI’s annus horribilis. It began with leaked documents stolen from the Pope’s desk detailing corruption, homosexual cabals and blackmail among Vatican staff as well as major financial irregularities at the Vatican bank (the Vatileaks scandal). In May, the crisis escalated with the publication of a book containing confidential letters and memos between Pope Benedict and his secretary.

The year ended with the presentation of a report of an internal investigation Pope Benedict had commissioned from three cardinals he trusted. Their report confirmed serious dysfunction at the heart of many of the Holy See’s offices and administrations.

One hundred and seventeen cardinals entered the conclave, 67 of whom Pope Benedict had appointed. It was quipped that the aforementioned report, with its damning findings, was the 118th and by far the most influential ‘cardinal’ present in the Sistine Chapel for the election.

In the pre-conclave meetings cardinals were allowed to speak for five minutes. Jorge Bergoglio took only three-and-a-half to deliver what was subsequently described as an electrifying address. Cardinal Schönborn described it as an intervention that was very simple, very spiritual and that got to the heart of the reform and renewal that was urgently required. He is reported to have leaned over to his neighbour and said: “that’s exactly what we need”.


What was it that prompted this reaction? In what was an unintentional self-description, Bergoglio had said, “thinking of the next Pope: a man who, coming from contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worship of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out of itself to the existential peripheries…that helps (the Church) to be a fruitful Mother, living ‘the sweet and comforting joy of evangelising’”.

Significantly, the reference to evangelisation was a throwback to Pope Paul VI whose inspiration Pope Francis has relied upon more than that of any of his other predecessors. By ‘existential peripheries’, Bergoglio meant “those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery”.

In the course of his brief intervention Bergoglio also drew upon conciliar theologians Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar when detailing the stark choice that faced the Church. It could become an evangelising Church that listens reverently to God’s word and proclaims it faithfully, or one increasingly absorbed by spiritual worldliness and theological narcissism that considers itself rather than Christ to be the light of the world.

These are the sentiments that stirred the cardinal-electors to put their trust in Jorge Bergoglio. Five years later has Pope Francis been a man of his word, as the recently released film by Wim Wenders claims? Looking back over his pontificate we can say a few things.

Today, local Churches, even those as tired and bruised as ours because of secularism and countless ‘own goals’, feel the benefit of renewed energy.

Many young people have been affirmed and challenged by Pope Francis, by his witness, his words and his actions. We will see this reflected at the forthcoming World Synod of Bishops. Many non-Catholics have similarly been moved to action especially by the energy he has brought to bear through Laudato Si’ on caring for our common home.

Pope Benedict rightly warned of the danger of ‘doctrinal relativism’. Pope Francis has taken this further by showing how the view that each individual is the bearer of his or her own truth easily leads to a ‘practical relativism’.

It does this by blindsiding us to our responsibilities to the poor and vulnerable who can then be discarded in a ‘throwaway culture’ because they do not serve our individual and subjective needs (The Joy of the Gospel, Nos 61, 80).

Pope Benedict had re-focused evangelisation on personal encounter with Christ, an encounter that must precede learning about Christ. Pope Francis has shown us where to look for Christ: in the sacraments, certainly, but also in the ‘existential peripheries’ that above all the poor, who are ‘the prolongation of the incarnation’ inhabit (The Joy of the Gospel, No. 179).

Renewal of the Church will not come about by navel-gazing about our problems but by becoming the merciful presence of Christ in every situation where human dignity is diminished and violated: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security (The Joy of the Gospel, No. 49).

There is more of a buzz about evangelisation now than there was 20 years ago during the decade dedicated to evangelisation or even at the time of the World Synod on the New Evangelisation in 2012.

This is directly attributable to Pope Francis. Significantly, Pope Francis wasn’t present at that synod. Also, he replaced the planned post-synodal exhortation with The Joy of the Gospel, which draws as much upon a 2007 document charting the renewal of the Latin American Church of which he had been lead author (Aparecida) as it did upon the Synod’s proceedings.

The Latin American influence on The Joy of the Gospel is just one example of how the Catholic Church is finally shaking off its European mantle and becoming truly globalised. Another is Pope Francis’ appointment of 75 cardinals from 50 different countries, 15 of which have never had a cardinal before.


Vatican II, the first Council of the Church with indigenous bishops from all over the world, recognised the global nature of the Church in principle. Now, for the first time, a world-church is being realised in practice.

Less than a quarter of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are European and we Europeans must be realistic about our relative unimportance. We need to get used to humbly receiving inspiration, energy, impulses and resources from other cultural contexts and continents.

We also need to get used to how non-European popes choose to go about their business. This includes in terms of leadership, communication and decision-making processes, though Francis’ style in relation to these also owes much to his Jesuit roots, a point to which we will return.

Implementation of The Joy of the Gospel, the programmatic document for Pope Francis’ pontificate, is still a work in progress. In part, this is because many of us have yet to shake off our complacency, and perhaps also an unhelpful passivity in which we were previously schooled, so that we can embrace more fully our responsibilities as baptised faithful.

The Joy of the Gospel is, after all, an exhortation. Its purpose is to exhort us to engagement and action, to ‘get with the programme’ of evangelisation, to transform everything we do into “a missionary key” (The Joy of the Gospel, Nos. 33, 34).

Work still needs to be done in bringing about a “sound decentralisation” (No.16) whereby, the faithful, bishops, priests and laity together, are enabled to take shared responsibility for the renewal of their local Church. In a global Church, superficial uniformity must give way to a unity that accommodates the richness of how God speaks in diverse cultural contexts.

Practically speaking we are in the early stages of working this out, as evidenced, for instance, by recent failed attempts to agree between Germany and Rome on regulations in regard to Holy Communion for spouses in mixed marriages.

The most dangerous manifestation of the enemy within the Church is the culture of clericalism and Pope Francis has repeatedly decried it as a profound evil that nullifies the baptismal grace of the lay faithful and stifles prophetic voices in the Church.

As far back as 1983 one report defined clericalism as “the conscious or unconscious concern to promote the particular interests of the clergy and to protect the privileges and power that have traditionally been conceded to those in the clerical state”. Clericalism is at work when holiness is identified with the “clerical state and, thereby, with the cleric himself”.

In recent weeks clericalism was identified once again as having been the key enabler both of sexual crimes against children and their cover-up. This is because it created a climate in which the actions of priests and bishops could not be questioned or contested.

Pope Francis has tackled clericalism not only by his statements but also by appointing lay people to the upper echelons of the Curia and by encouraging their inclusion in decision-making processes (The Joy of the Gospel, N. 102). In Gaudete et Exultate, he has also reminded us of the universal call to holiness taught by Vatican II, reiterating that there is no ‘fast-track’ or ‘priority lane’ when it comes to life with God.

“The future of humanity passes by way of the family”, St John Paul II said and the renewal of family and marriage has being a key priority for Pope Francis. However, by holding two synods on such a controversial topic and by opening for discussion issues like Communion for people in second and irregular unions, Pope Francis has also restored synodality to what the Council Fathers intended it to be: a key governance and decision-making body, with and under Peter (sub et cum Petro) under the guidance of the Holy Spirit at the service of a truly world-Church.

The resulting debates and, at times, division within the Church, though disturbing, nonetheless reflect reality. This can only be healthy.

Pope Francis’ pontificate marks a new phase in the implementation of Vatican II and this could be his most enduring legacy. Pope Benedict XVI was a living link with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) having participated in it as a theologian. His immediate predecessors were also at the Council. Pope Francis, however, was not.

We’re now recognising that the Council wasn’t just about the documents it produced. The conciliar texts are of immense importance and give current renewal of the Church its decisive orientation, but they are necessarily limited.

In its pastoral focus on the circumstances of the present day as well as its method of deliberation and processes, however, the Council also taught us how to go about governing a global Church. In this respect we are only at the beginning of receiving its teaching. Not having been at the Council and therefore less invested in particular interpretations of the texts than his predecessors, Francis is freer to take this on board.

The Synod of Bishops was conceived to be a council in miniature. For the first time since Vatican II the debates, discussions and position papers produced between the two synods on the family were reminiscent of the energy and vibrancy that was manifest between sessions of the Council over 50 years ago. We can expect more of these debates into the future.

Besides all this, of course, is the fact that Pope Francis is a Jesuit. This informs his governance of the Church more than anything else. St Ignatius had a profound understanding of human nature: its strengths, rooted in the prevalence of grace, and its weaknesses, rooted in the reality of sin.

Since his election Pope Francis has been training us in the dynamics of personal conversion: encouraging us to recognise God in the ordinariness of our daily lives, reminding us of the need to imbed habits of prayerful discernment, inviting us to commit to personal growth and accept that such growth, if it is to endure, only happens incrementally and requires patience.

What of the conversion of the Church as an institution? Pope Francis seems to be applying the same principles. He has chosen to pursue a change of mentality than merely one of personnel. To those of us on the outside it all seems slow. To those wounded by the Church it must seem painfully so.

Even Pope Francis himself is frustrated. Last year he said “reforming Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush”, a reference to a remark made by a Belgian cleric over a century ago.

It is a courageous approach for a man now in his eighties but then he sees Church reform ultimately as God’s responsibility and not his or his alone. As we welcome him to our shores we could do worse than let him know we are behind him and that he has our prayerful and practical support.