Monday, January 19, 2015
The church is more than just the pope
Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Pope Francis. I never thought I would see a pope like him in my lifetime. His simplicity, compassion, and commitment to the poor are genuine reflections of the Gospel message of Jesus. His support for openness and honest discussion and debate in the church are marks of his trust in the Spirit. His stress on justice, peace, and care for the environment show his focus on issues that are critical to the 21st century.
That said, I wish he knew how to talk about women in a way that would be more acceptable to educated women. I wish he would ask for the resignations of bishops who have lost credibility with their people by not following the church's rules on dealing with abusive priests.
I also get nervous when people place all of their hopes and dreams about the church on the shoulders of Francis. The pope is not the Catholic church. He has a very important role in the church, but the church is much bigger than him. It includes all of us.
For example, many journalists have asked me about the "Francis effect." Is Francis bringing people back to church?
Anecdotally, we hear from parents and grandparents that their children, who don't go to church, like the pope and say that he has changed their attitude toward the church. But so far we have no polling data to support the hypothesis of a Francis effect.
Part of the explanation is that the pope is not the Catholic church. Tip O'Neil said that all politics is local. I would argue that all religion is also local.
After a television interview, I was talking with a young producer who told me of her experience. She had been raised Catholic, but stopped going to church in college. Now she is engaged and was encouraged by her fiancé and Francis to give the church another try. After going to church a few times, she felt called to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. It was a disaster. The priest yelled at her and told her that everything bad that had happened to her was because she had not gone to confession in 10 years.
There will be no "Francis effect" if when people return to the church they do not meet someone like Francis at their parish. Going to confession today is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know whether you will meet the compassionate Jesus or some angry, judgmental crank who thinks it is his job to tell people how bad they are. This is a form of abuse about which the church has done nothing.
Nor should we limit our focus to the clergy. Parish staff can be tempted to clericalism, and parish communities can ignore new parishioners who can feel lost in a crowd of people.
Try this experiment. Go to a Catholic church you have never attended and see how long it takes before someone initiates a conversation with you. Then go to an Evangelical church and try the same experiment. The Evangelicals will win every time.
Organizational theorists remind us that to reform an institution requires more than just rearranging the organizational chart. It requires a change in culture, or what we Christians call a spiritual conversion. A pope can point the way through both word and example, but unless we get on board there will be no permanent change in the church.
For centuries, the Catholic church has presumed that the role of the clergy is to be active and the role of the laity is to be passive. The Second Vatican Council tried to kill that notion, but old patterns die slowly.
In Brazil, Francis led the bishops through an examination of conscience, which included the question: Do we give the laity “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?”
When conversation turns to the priest shortage, I sometimes joke, "Maybe God knows what she is doing. Maybe this is the only way to end clericalism in the church."
The positive side of the priest shortage is that the few remaining priests (and sisters) can't do everything and if the church is to survive, the laity must step forward and be empowered to make the church prosper. One pastor I admired used to joke, "More power to the people; less work for the father."
Francis has given us hope and shown us the way, but it is up to us to pick up the ball and run with it. There is no room in the church for passive observers; we are all called to be the body of Christ active in our world today. That means participating in or supporting parish programs for liturgical music, hospitality, continuing education, Scripture discussion, youth ministry, and social justice, to mention just a few.
Francis' desire for a "poor church for the poor" or for the church to be a "field hospital" has to be incarnated at the parish level or it will not happen at all.
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: .]