Pope Francis’ prayer intention for August: The Church on the Way – Let us pray for the Church, that she may receive from the Holy Spirit the grace and strength to reform herself in the light of the Gospel.
Not so long ago, to think of the Church reforming herself would have seemed a Protestant notion. For Catholics, individuals in the Church needed reform but the Church herself was the spotless Bride of Christ which was perfect. Now, however, that easy distinction between the perfect Church and its sinful members doesn’t cut it. The scandal of clerical abuse in the Church and more lately the evidence of financial misconduct by Bishops and Cardinals have painted an indelible picture of a sinful Church needing reform in all her members from the highest to the lowest. The question we ask is not whether the Church needs to reform herself but whether she can reform herself, and if so how. That is the point from which Pope Francis begins.
Experience tells us how difficult it is for any person or any group to reform itself. We know how powerful are the effects of addiction, and how our need for release through drugs, gambling or sexual relationships can override all the promises and good resolutions in the world. We know how difficult it is for us to pull ourselves up by tugging on our socks. Through Royal Commissions into banking, gambling palaces and penal systems, we have also seen how difficult it is for institutions to reform themselves. We human beings easily make our needs and desires dominate what we value. Then we write them into our relationships with one another, to money, to our colleagues and to the rules we unthinkingly obey. In this way, we will shape a culture that resists the best resolution to reform. It is much easier and often more profitable to speak noble words about reform but then return to what we were doing before.
For this reason, we should not take it for granted that as Catholics and as Church, we shall be able to reform ourselves simply by rewriting our rule book, drawing up new protocols, penalising people when they break the rules, and deciding to change our ways. We are often running into very strong headwinds. To reform ourselves is more than a matter of willpower. It is a gift to be prayed for. If we do change our lives, we should not be complacent. Better to be grateful and be prepared to pray when again we stumble.
When we Catholics think of gifts, we are taught to think also of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes the difference between good intentions and carrying them out, between sinning and forgiveness, between a tired world and one renewed, and between being executed as a criminal and rising from the dead. The Spirit is the gift that makes the unlikely possible. That is why Pope Francis asks us to pray for the Holy Spirit for the gift of reform.
In the Gospels, the Spirit is both the driver who makes our journey of reform possible and the guide who describes the map and the scenery along the way and makes them irresistibly attractive. The Spirit deepens in our hearts the desire to change our ways as persons and as community and gives us the enthusiasm to meet the obstacles we meet when we follow Jesus.
In Jesus’ life, the Spirit leads him first into the desert where he is tested. Times of reform are always times of testing between a radical and comfortable life. The Spirit also leads Jesus to gather disciples around him. Change of life takes place in the sharing of life and the reconciliation of conflicts within a community. Big ideas need to work in small relationships. Jesus is also led by the Spirit to go out to the poor and people who have lost their way. The Spirit of reform will also make us a church of the poor. The Spirit is wild. That is why we pray for reform. We need our plans to be hijacked by the Spirit.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.