Church navel-gazers

In just over a month, after a surprise election in 28 hours to the Chair of Peter, Pope Francis jolted people with initial reforms. These were mainly by example. Are we in for more surprises?

“The carnival is over,” Francis said, brushing aside the mozzeta or papal cape. He greeted the Piazza di San Pietro crowds—and the world—in a simple cassock. He washed the feet of jailed women and non-Catholics on Holy Thursday, ruffling traditionalist feathers. That was never done before, the Washington Post noted.


“I’m not Catholic,” wrote former Charisma editor Lee Grady, but Francis’ example contrasts with Pentecostal leaders’ excesses. Some dispatch thugs to “scout” the lobby of a hotel before they arrive. Others book $10,000-a-night hotel rooms after international trips. Those who cream donations are “worse than medieval priests who peddled indulgences… Learn from Francis until your ego shrinks.”

Saturday, Pope Francis named eight cardinals to advise him on recasting an entrenched Vatican bureaucracy, which was last overhauled by Pope John Paul in 1988. None of the eight was a Curia “insider.” Note the geographical spread: Francisco Ossa of Chile, Oswald Gracias of India, Reinhard Marx of Germany, Laurent Pasinya of Congo, Sean Patrick O’Malley of the United States, Oscar Maradiaga of Honduras, George Pell of  Australia, and Giuseppe Bertello of the Vatican.


These men reflect a Church which, “over the past century, shifted southwards,” notes the New York Times. The majority of Catholics today are in Latin America and Africa. “The Vatican is now in the wrong location,” wrote Philip Jenkins in the New Republic. “It’s 2,000 miles too far north of its emerging homelands.”

They’re outspoken in calling for a Curia shakeup. Simmering demands for reform ratcheted last year. Leaks of papal documents were compounded by petty turf battles to allegations of sleaze.

Reforms shouldn’t stop with the Curia or the renewal of priests. Instead, they must address “the fundamental corruption today.” And pray, what is that? “Ecclesiastical narcissism” or, in today’s jargon, Church navel-gazing.

An inward-looking Church succumbs to “living in itself, of itself, for itself.” Coiled in a shell, “it becomes self-referential, sickens and fails to go to those on the outskirts of existence… It is essential that both clergy and laity go out to meet the people… And that will  involve a thorough reform of the laity, too.”

That’s a tall order. It had been crammed into a five-minute intervention, four days before white smoke drifted from the Sistine Chapel to signal “Habemus Papam.” The speaker? Argentina’s “Padre Jorge,” now known as Pope Francis.

It is a theme Jorge Bergoglio stressed in the 2007 “Aparecida” Document—a summary of reports of Latin American bishops’ discussions in Brazil. He repeated it in a Year of Faith interview:

“If the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one… Instead of just being a Church that welcomes and receives, we try to be a Church that comes out of itself and goes to the men and women who do not participate in parish life, do not know much about it, and are indifferent towards it…”


How will Francis and his associates seek to do this task in the days ahead? Start with candid self-assessment.

“We priests tend to clericalize the laity,” Francis said. “[We] focus on things of the clergy, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than bringing the Gospel to the world… A Church that limits herself to administering parish work experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.

“We infect lay people with our own disease. And some begin to believe the fundamental service God asks of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy communion at Church. Rather, [the call is] to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and beyond.”

The reform that’s needed is “neither to clericalize nor ask to be clericalized. The layperson is a layperson. He has to live as a layperson… to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself…. [He] is  to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life. And like  all of us, the layperson is called to carry his daily cross—the cross of the layperson, not of the priest.”

One of the wild grapes that flows through clericalism, is a hypercritical spirit. That leads some Catholic priests and faithful to expend most of their energy censuring others, inside and outside the Church, rather than seeking to live and share the joy of the Christian faith.

Flinging vitriolic criticism at those with whom one disagrees is not the path of the reform of both the laity and clergy. “We  cannot fall into that trap. It is a sinful complicity.”

The reform of the laity, the “Aparecida” says, can be boiled down to four words: “missionary disciples in communion.” A community of believers transforms politics, society, education, neighborhoods, family and marriages within a bushel of self-referential, spiritually worldly, and ultimately “sick” parochial or diocesan structures.

It’s all about the ordinary laymen.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Cahtolic Church, Juan L. Mercado, opinion, Pope Francis, Religion, Viewpoint
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