People want pastors not bureaucrats

Francis poses enormous challenges to the faithful, writes Nuala O’Loan

Pope Francis’ recent interview, given over three days to his Jesuit colleagues, has attracted great attention.  He ponders over things, constantly reflecting and modifying his answers even as he delivers them.  He is clearly a very thoughtful man.

Antonio Spadaro, SJ, who conducted the interview reported that, “Talking with Pope Francis is a kind of volcanic flow of ideas that are bound up with each other. Even taking notes gives me an uncomfortable feeling, as if I were trying to suppress a surging spring of dialogue.”

There has, inevitably, been focus on his remarks on abortion, contraception and homosexuality.  There is no change to Church teaching inherent in those comments. Rather he states teaching as it is and then moves on to call the Church to recognise that in this wonderful, complex, troubled world of ours, these are not the only issues on which we must focus our energies. 


He said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible……But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the Church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

He calls us to “grow in the understanding of the truth”, saying “exegetes and theologians help the Church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the Church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning. The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.”


He says: “Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists—they have a static and inward-directed view of things. In this way, faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies.”

His challenges to the people of God really are enormous. 

They manifest in great challenges such as those inherent in the words I have just quoted, in little challenges such as that inherent in his acceptance of an elderly high mileage Ford Focus, and his call to priests not to drive big cars, and they are obvious also in his ongoing attempts to discern what should be the role of women in the Church,

 “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo. Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The Church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the Church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the Church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the Church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the Church is exercised for various areas of the Church.”

We have a Pope who is thinking out loud as he seeks to find a way to give women an opportunity to contribute “wherever we make important decisions”.

He is a Pope who is focussed on all people: “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.”


His pre-occupation seems to be, “how are we treating the people of God? I dream of a Church that is a mother and shepherdess. The Church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin.”

He goes on to say “structural and organisational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude.”

His constant call is, above all, to all priests, including those who hold office as bishops, archbishops and cardinals (and of course he speaks incessantly to and of himself): “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”

This is very reminiscent of Cardinal Bernardin who wrote: “As Christians, if we are to love as Jesus loved, we must first come to terms with suffering. Like Jesus, we simply cannot be cool and detached from our fellow human beings. Our years of living as Christians will be years of suffering for and with other people. Like Jesus, we will love others only if we walk with them in the valley of darkness—the dark valley of sickness, the dark valley of moral dilemmas, the dark valley of oppressive structures and diminished rights.”


This is the message that Francis sends us too. “The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

I was thinking of all this, and of the many other riches in the interview, yesterday as I sat in St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York waiting for the 10.15 Mass, to be celebrated by Cardinal Dolan.  We had gone early. Having attended Mass the previous evening we knew that the side aisles of the cathedral were filled with scaffolding, part of a massive programme of restoration, and that it was very difficult to see.  The acoustics and the air conditioning system made hearing very difficult. It all seemed rather to reflect the state of the Church today, crumbling a bit, structurally, its vision impeded by the temporary structures men have created to try and hold it together, the message obscured by so many other things going on. 

As we waited an interesting scenario played out in front of us.  The first 20 or so central rows were reserved, possibly up to 200 seats. This struck us as most unusual at a normal Sunday Mass.  When asked, the usher stated that “they were kept for the cardinal’s visitors”.  As ordinary people approached they were turned away one after another, told to occupy the seats behind. Did this, too, reflect the Church of today?

The homily was preached by Fr Robert Barron, the author of Catholicism.  His message was about challenges too – the challenges inherent in accumulating and having wealth, (nothing wrong with that, he said) and in how we use that wealth, whatever it may be, for the common good, and of the need always to put God first.

There is plenty for today’s Catholics to think about as they look around them!