The new man in the Vatican continues to make noise, for the right reasons.
Early this week Pope Francis named 19 new cardinals—the first batch of his papacy, with many of the appointees coming from the global south—Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Among them is Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Quevedo—a first from Mindanao.
Naming cardinals is a time-honored papal task, so that wasn’t the big news. What was noteworthy was how Francis framed the appointments. In his letter to the cardinal-elects, he cautioned them against careerism and reveling in their new positions. “The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” he said. “It is neither an honor nor a decoration. It is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”
The Pope also warned them to refrain from lavish celebration: “While you must do so with pleasure and joy, ensure that this sentiment is far from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”
The caveat has become typical of Francis, who has made simplicity and humility among the defining marks of his young papacy. The other virtues he has brought to the Vatican are even more startling: a sense of compassion, openness and modernity that is a veritable blast of fresh air starkly different from the coldly dogmatic, often divisive pronouncements that had come from the Holy See in the last few years.
Recently, among the 32 babies he baptized in the Sistine Chapel was the seven-month-old child of a couple who were “unmarried” in the eyes of the Church (they had wed at city hall and not at a traditional church service). Francis went ahead and baptized the child. It was an act consistent with the exhortation he had earlier directed at priests and bishops, that the sacraments such as baptism and communion should not be used as a battering ram in the culture wars—withheld, say, from legislators opposed in principle to Rome’s rigid anticontraception stand, or from divorcees, or from children of broken families—but should be seen as “spiritual food that helps one to go on; … a remedy, not a prize.”
In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, he also recalled: “Last year in Argentina I condemned the attitude of some priests who did not baptize the children of unmarried mothers. This is a sick mentality.”
That this Pope appears to be more responsive to the world’s changing character and values can be seen in another development: the 38-question survey the Vatican has sent out to parishes worldwide to seek out the opinions of ordinary Catholics, as well as bishops and theologians, on such hot-button issues as contraception, premarital sex, divorce, single parenting and gay unions. It’s reportedly the first time since the 1960s that the Catholic Church has asked lay parishioners for their thoughts on these matters—a move that, in the words of Chicago’s archbishop Cardinal Francis George, not only “seems to be offering an outstretched hand to the people of the church,” but is also “encouraging the bishops to be listeners to the voice of the people.”
It’s entirely possible, of course, that nothing will come out of this gesture. It took the Church centuries to admit it had erred in sending Galileo to the dock for his temerity to propose that Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Pope Francis himself, while calling on his Church to forge a new way of engaging women in evangelical work, insists that only men can be priests, but women must be given broader decision-making opportunities in the Church, and their voices heard more.
For many, that stand still comes up way too short. The Church appears to be trapped in double talk in calling for greater democratic rights in countries all over the world, while remaining beholden to its own antiquarian, retrograde way of doing things in its own backyard. But perhaps Francis should also be given time to further define the legacy he wants to stamp on the 1.2-billion-strong Catholic congregation he heads. He has barely been a year in his chair, and yet the changes he has wrought—if mostly in manner and tone for now—have been tantalizing and invigorating.
Who knows? If his record so far is any indication, there will be more surprises from this bold, forward-thinking Pope.
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