While in Rome this week, I spoke with a number of visiting cardinals and curial officials. All agreed that speculation that Pope Francis’ tenure is coming to its end is misplaced. But there was a sense that the papacy has entered a new phase in which the Holy Father and the Roman Curia are looking to consolidate the reforms.
The consolidation is focused on the central, ecclesial themes of the pontificate: discernment, encounter, accompaniment, emphasizing the mercy and tenderness of God, the revival of pastoral theology, synodality, how to care for creation, and how to engage, rather than confront, secularization. These themes are taking root, and even those cardinals and bishops who were once skeptical are embracing the pope’s ideas. One cardinal who in 2015 gave what a synod father said was “a finger-wagging speech” to the pope, telling him he couldn’t do what he thought he could do regarding Communion for the divorced and remarried, this time gave a speech commending the pope and endorsing his reforms of the Roman Curia.
The consolidation of themes is not like the consolidation of gains a general might undertake on the battlefield, halting an advance so that the rest of the army can come up, reestablishing supply routes and taking measures to squash any counterattack. No, this consolidation is more like the flavors of a stew melding together in the course of a long, slow simmer, each flavor still distinct but improved by encountering the other flavors.
In conversations with people in different roles, the most consistently expressed opinion was that synodality was changing the way the church is, not just the way it functions, including what it means to be a pastor and an evangelizer. A bishop is a teacher of the flock, for example, but synodality reminds him in concrete ways that the Spirit of God is already at work in the lives of his flock. A bishop does not drop out of the sky with all the answers and if he thinks he can, his ministry will be limited, even crippled, and pedantic. The diocese may become an extension of his vision, and the people may be obedient, but the diocese will not be alive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Master chose 12 apostles, not one, so the church has never been a univocal thing.
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Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.
With thanks to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Michael Sean Winters, where this article originally appeared.