When he welcomes African refugees to the Italian island of Lampedusa, when he builds a barbershop and a laundry at the Vatican for the homeless of Rome, when he urges bishops at a synod to be fearless in speaking their minds—it all seems new. And it is.
In Pope Francis we see a man of deep prayer and relationship with Jesus, influenced by Ignatius Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Jesuits. We also see a skilled communicator; one with a symbolic imagination.
Yet his leadership only makes sense in the context of the church’s long tradition of faith and particularly of the Second Vatican Council’s (1962-1965) reflection both on the nature of the church and on the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. The fundamental understanding that pervades Francis’ leadership comes from Vatican II’s document on the church, Lumen Gentium. He sees the church as the people of God journeying through history. The church is not primarily an institution but a people of faith responding to God’s call to live in love and to allow that love to transform their personal, relational and social lives.
Of course, a people of our size and complexity needs institutional structure. But Francis insists, again and again, that the institution must be at the service of the people. His emphasis on the church as the people of God has implications for many aspects of our common life, and here I want to focus on three: his condemnation of clericalism, his call for a more incisive role for women in the church and his view of the church as a “listening church.”
Firstly, Francis speaks out often against an “excessive clericalism” in the church, in which ordained ministers draw power to themselves and place themselves at the centre of church life. He responds: “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service” (The Joy of the Gospel, n102). With one of his most evocative images, he says that shepherds should take on the smell of the sheep.
Secondly, he calls us to “create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church” (#103). As I see it, through this statement Francis recognises that, along with the whole of western culture over many centuries, the church has simply assumed that men are superior to women and children. Since the 1960s, however, we have come to recognise and value women’s equal dignity and are in the process of transforming our common life to express this understanding, one articulated clearly in the Christian scriptures. This transition has been especially difficult for the Catholic Church because we must be faithful both to the tradition that we bear and to the Spirit who renews and transforms us. Yet the challenge to recognise women’s equal dignity remains.
Thirdly, another strong challenge: Francis speaks of the church as “a listening church.” In October 2015, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first Synod of Bishops, Francis insisted that synods are “one of the most precious legacies” of Vatican II because they give expression to the real life of the church. The word “synod” has its origin in the Greek language, with its root meaning “to walk together”. For Francis, “A synodal church is a listening church….It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn.”
For the church’s ordained ministers, the listening that Francis commends has two functions; educative and theological. It is educative in that only through listening can leaders teach insightfully and credibly. Everyone has something to learn, and the process must begin by listening to the whole people. But even more importantly, the listening is theological because only through listening can the community discern what God is saying to the church. Through listening to one another, we are a church listening to God.
Perhaps the following words from that same speech best sum up Francis’ vision of the church: “As a constitutive dimension of the church, synodality gives us the more appropriate interpretive framework within which to understand the hierarchical ministry. If we understand as St John Chrysostom did, that ‘church and synod are synonymous’, since the church means nothing other than the common journey of the Flock of God along the paths of history toward the encounter of Christ Lord, then we understand that within the church, no one can be raised up higher than others. On the contrary, in the church, it is necessary that each person be ‘lowered’ in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way.”
When the church lives in this way “it all seems new,” and the gospel is proclaimed.