Pope Francis’s Vision for the Church

By Bishop John Stowe OFM Conv, 8 June 2023
Pope Francis delivers the homily during a Solemn Mass for the Opening of the Synodal Path at St Peter's Basilica, the Vatican, 10 October 2021. Image: Vatican Media


Seeking a Church in service to the world

On the evening of October 11, 1962, the night preceding the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a crowd of mostly young people gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, filled with energy, enthusiasm, and expectation for what was about to unfold. John XXIII came to the window from which popes customarily address the crowds at the Sunday Angelus and gave an impromptu fervorino, referred to simply as the “moonlight speech.” It is probably his best remembered speech and provides an apt characterization of the man known to the world as Good Pope John. Rejoicing at the sight of the crowd and the glow of their candles, Pope John mused that even the moon came out for the event. After a few more words of encouragement, he said:

When you go home, give your children a hug and tell them it is from the pope. And when you find them with tears to dry, give them a good word. Give anyone who suffers a word of comfort. Tell them, “The pope is with us especially in our times of sadness.”

John XXIII called for aggiornamento so that the worldwide Church could be refreshed and renewed for its mission in the world. His fifth successor, Pope Francis, is convinced that it was the Holy Spirit’s actions that made the council bear fruit, and he is making it clear that the Second Vatican Council has charted the course for the Church that he intends to follow. Like his smiling predecessor, Francis is attuned to the realities of the suffering of the innocent and is painfully aware of how inequality of access to the world’s goods and the phenomenal disproportionality in the consumption of those goods contributes to violence, instability, and the threatened future of humanity. It doesn’t have to be so, he reminds us again and again, and the remedy is to simply live as sisters and brothers as God’s plan has designed. The aggiornamento needed for the present moment is to get back on course with the “pilgrim people of God” ecclesiology of the council and to forge even stronger bonds of fraternity—not only with other Christians, but with all of the world’s religions, and even those of no faith who would be characterized as people of good will.

In the past few months, there have been many assessments of the Bergoglio papacy—some lauding its fruitfulness, others bemoaning the lack thereof. If one’s primary concern about the Church today is access to the pre-conciliar liturgy, or pre-conciliar attitudes about ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, or a rigid interpretation of the Church’s moral tradition when it comes to sexual ethics but not to social ethics; if one fears a Church in dialogue with the world or fears a hierarchy that listens to its own flock; if one wants to be certain that the sacraments be exclusively offered to the saintly or fears any greater inclusion of laity, especially women, in co-responsible roles in the Church—then the Francis pontificate has been an outright disaster. That is supposedly how a cardinal, once a close collaborator of Francis, described this decade in a posthumously released commentary.

If, however, one has been inspired by the fact that the cardinals selected a Bishop of Rome from the “ends of the world,” a pope who chose the name of Francis in remembrance of the saint of the poor, of creation, and of peace; if one is grateful for relief from the imposition of Tridentine rubrics and pre-conciliar liturgical fashion by young clerics; if one is enthusiastic about the reintroduction and reimagination of synodality in the West; if one prefers a pope who washes the feet of women, Muslims, prisoners, and who brings refugees on board papal flights and invites them to live in the Vatican; if one nods in agreement with the idea that the Church is supposed to form consciences and not replace them; and if one rejoices to see accompaniment and discernment as the proper approach to those who lives are not fully reflective of the Church’s teachings—then it is hard to consider these ten years as anything but a successful beginning.

No pope should be remembered for only one thing, but it seems that recent popes have each introduced a memorable word or phrase into the Catholic lexicon. For John XXIII it was “aggiornamento,” for Paul VI it was “evangelization.” For John Paul II, the word “solidarity” probably takes first place; for Benedict XVI, the “rejection of relativism.” For a good while I was convinced that the Francis word would be “periphery.” Was anybody talking about the peripheries before 2013? It shouldn’t been surprising, coming from the first Latin American pope, who brought with him the legacy of CELAM, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference and its aim to create missionary disciples, the same conference that declared a preferential option for the poor and aligned itself with the impoverished masses of the continent after centuries of being part of the privileged elite. The peripheries to which Father Jorge once sent his Jesuit novices have now become a worldwide directive from the center of the Church.

The word “joy” was also a real contender. When had we ever heard so much about the joy of the Gospel? The joy of love, especially married and family love? The joy of the call to holiness? Certainly more far-reaching than any of his encyclicals is the joy that Francis expresses in every encounter with refugees, migrants, the imprisoned, those who dwell in ghettos, the hospitalized, and those in nursing homes. Recently, after seeing so many pictures of the pope in discomfort and awkwardly moving around, I wondered if we would see that smile again. But sure enough, on Holy Thursday at the Marmo Juvenile Detention Center where he washed the feet of inmates, I saw the beaming smile, returned to him by those who experienced that close connection. The “Joy of the Gospel” was the title of his first apostolic exhortation, and it really did serve as a programmatic essay about the way his papacy would unfold and the direction in which he would lead the Church.

But now my hope and prayer is that “synodality” becomes the lasting Franciscan contribution to our Catholic vocabulary. This pope—a man of deep prayer who is schooled in the Ignatian spiritual tradition of discernment and who bears witness to the freedom of the Holy Spirit—is content to convene the bishops and the whole People of God to learn again to “walk together,” which he reminds us is the foundational meaning of “synod.” It is also a phrase used by John XXIII in that moonlight speech: “tutti insieme in fraternità,” everyone together in fraternity towards peace. Pope Francis is also reformulating the use of synods so that they are not only periodic events for convening bishops in affective collegiality, but also the new way of being the Church at every level. If this attempt is successful, its impact will be comparable to that of the Second Vatican Council, opened by another pope who was seen to be nearing the end of his days.

Francis builds on the legacy of the Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the Synod of Bishops as a permanent reality in the Church. Lumen gentium provided a renewed look at the traditional ministry of the bishop; the council restored the office of diocesan bishop as being much more than a “branch officer” for the corporate offices in Rome. The council also discussed the collegiality necessary among all bishops who share responsibility for the universal Church with and under Peter. Still, there was no intermediary structure between the local bishop and pope, except for the national and regional conferences of bishops, which are more about fraternal collegiality than effective governance. The Synod of Bishops would be convened by the pope, discuss pertinent issues at the pope’s request, and provide a global perspective to the pope.

Pope Francis himself, as a bishop, did not appreciate synods that seemed to merely rubber-stamp decisions and directives made elsewhere, mainly by the Roman Curia. He lamented his own experience of bishops who shared opinions and critiques outside the synod hall, but who had been much more reserved about doing so in the Holy Father’s presence. At his first synod as Bishop of Rome, the extraordinary Synod on the Family, Francis instructed the participating bishops to speak boldly and listen charitably. It seems that some were better at implementing the first half of the directive. Another of the frequently repeated words in the Francis lexicon is parrhesia, or boldness, which he insists is necessary in the synodal process if real discernment, listening, and dialogue are to take place. The Acts of the Apostles describes such parrhesia. But in the synodal setting, time for silence, prayer, processing, and discernment is just as important.

The recent diocesan phase of the universal Synod on Synodality was meant to be an exercise in teaching this method to the whole Church. Indeed it was a start, but there is a long way to go. Francis has clarified that synods are not to function in parliamentary fashion: there are no parties and it is not simply a matter of winning the majority to one’s side of an argument. Real synodality should not have winners and losers; if people are not open to a change of heart through dialogue, they have yet to learn the synodal method. Francis is not at all afraid of learning from failures and trying repeatedly to get it right. Many across the ideological spectrum would consider the Amazon Synod to have been a failure—some because it did not result in the ordination of married deacons to the priesthood or women to the diaconate, others because of their horror that such issues even came to the floor. In his discernment, Pope Francis said that it was not the moment to act on such proposals, because all the participants came with their preconceived views on the topics and no one was open to change.

In considering the implementation of the Synod on Synodality in the United States up until now, we can see both an initial grasp of the concept of synodality along with an enthusiasm for the process of listening and consultation—but also a well-founded wariness about whether anything will come of it. (I am referring here to the laity primarily.) There are also critiques of the process, suspicions of its agenda, and attempts to discredit it. Reception by the bishops in the United States can be characterized as lukewarm at best. There are places in the country where the synod has been embraced and eagerly implemented, and places where there has been little to no engagement with the process.

My perspective is shaped by having been the bishop from my region (the ecclesiastical provinces of Louisville, Mobile, and New Orleans) who coordinated our regional synthesis and was part of the USCCB team that coordinated the national synthesis. I also participated in the drafting of the continental synthesis. While every diocese in my region did something, some were content to merely offer an online survey. An online survey can be a helpful tool, especially when there was a desire to include the disaffected and alienated who would probably not be inclined to come to a church gathering for the purpose. But an online tool alone can hardly be an expression of the “walking together” that the synod is supposed to be about.

The dominant cultural pragmatism in North America was evident in the desire to know “where this is going.” Bishops frequently stated that they do not know how to lead a process when the desired outcome of that process is unclear. I think the pope’s response to that complaint would be that the bishops are not meant to lead the process, but to facilitate the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It is easy to see why the national “Eucharistic Revival” has received far more energy, attention, and resources in the U.S. Church: there is a plan, there is marketing, there is a beginning and end point, there is substantial funding, and there is a problem to be addressed, namely the concern that Catholics do not believe sufficiently in the Real Presence. Instead of ensuring a eucharistic centrality to the synodal process, allowing for an organic discernment about our eucharistic understanding, plans for a mega-event featuring plenty of pre-conciliar piety and theology have replaced the focus on the Synod for a Synodal Church in the USCCB. It does not strike me as coincidental that much of the Eucharistic Revival focuses on eucharistic adoration, passive in nature, and so offers an easy alternative to the active engagement of walking together synodally.

Several places in the United States could not resist creating a local action plan for their synod, even though this is clearly not the stage of the synod for that. Sometimes that push for a plan was about making sure that the insights gleaned from the People of God in dialogue would not be lost; I think that concern is valid, but also comes from thinking that the synod is an event rather than the way of being Church.

The first phase of the Synod, from October 2021 until April 2022, was to be the phase for listening and discernment in local churches, dioceses, and bishops’ conferences. The National Synthesis of the People of God in the United States of America for the diocesan phase of the synod emphasizes the joy with which participants were engaged and the positive feelings that came from the listening sessions. The structure and facilitation of such sessions varied greatly. This was not seen as problematic by the Office of the Synod in Rome because the Church is diverse, and this phase was not meant to be a one-time opportunity to get it right, but rather a part of an evolving process. The number of people who expressed gratitude for being listened to and being able to express themselves was impressive, even if some of those who wish to discount the process prefer to emphasize the miniscule percentage of all Catholics who actually participated in a formal session. My own experience of sensing a palpable love for the Church, even when members have been frustrated, hurt, and are worried about its future, was echoed throughout the country and around the globe. The enduring wounds of the sexual-abuse and mismanagement crises were prominent in discussions; related issues, like the concentration of power among clerics, the loss of respect and trust in the hierarchy, and the fear about the faith not being received by the next generation, also came up frequently—as did concerns about the roles of women and LGBTQ people in the Church. There was a great desire expressed to become a more welcoming Church and to offer accompaniment to people at every stage of faith development.

It seems that those who were engaged in synodal processes throughout the country have come to appreciate the language and spirit of Pope Francis and really are learning the art of discernment. It should be noted that many groups conducted synodal listening sessions outside of diocesan or parish structures and sent their syntheses directly to the Synod Office in Rome or to the USCCB, sometimes expressing dissatisfaction with the local process. Even so, the concerns that came up frequently throughout the United States also surfaced in many other parts of the world. If Pope Francis was hopeful that the Spirit would provide the issues to be discerned, the Spirit is speaking.

When all these national syntheses were received in Rome, a working document was created. The title given by the Office of the Synod in Rome to the working document for the Continental Stage includes these words from Isaiah 54:2: “Enlarge the space of your tent.” This reflects a desire for a less self-enclosed and more welcoming Church. The continental document describes a kind of wrestling with the concept of synodality and a real desire for a more missionary Church, even if we are unsure about how to get there.

The working document for the continental phase was then sent back to the dioceses for further discussion, careful reading, reflection, and discernment in dialogue. All were asked to describe what in the document resonated with their experience and what would be most impactful in their local church. These discussions were to be in preparation for a continental synodal assembly, which happened on every continent—except North America. For the purposes of this phase of the synod, Mexico was included with Latin America (South and Central) because of linguistic, cultural, and historical ties. North America—that is, the United States and Canada—conducted several sessions by Zoom with the bishops and two delegates selected by each diocesan bishop. There were sessions available in English, Spanish, and French. Asia, Europe, and Africa, with their vast geographies and cultural diversity, were able to conduct continental assemblies. Even the Middle East created such an assembly. North America did not, citing economic and practical difficulties in coming together.

With a narrower selection of delegates in this phase, there were some notable differences from the broad content of the diocesan listening sessions. Concerns about the direction of the synod were more pronounced. Many raised questions about whether the synod was trying to change doctrine and voiced opposition to that possibility. Calls for greater precision in what inclusivity might mean and who it might involve were more common, and discussions of liturgical tensions, the loss of the Latin Mass, and confusion over the process were more vocal at this stage. The USCCB synod staff noted the low participation of priests in the synod process and asked each bishop to nominate one older and one more recently ordained priest to a special clerical session, also conducted by Zoom. The concerns I just mentioned dominated that session even more, but it was deemed unofficial and similar to a special session created for ecumenical leaders (which I personally found very illuminating). It did not factor into the continental synthesis that was submitted to Rome and awaits publication.

Another aspect of synodality that I do not believe gets sufficient attention is the ecumenical incentive, especially concerning relations with the East. In 2008, well before the election of Pope Francis, his good friend, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the first Patriarch of Constantinople to attend a papal installation, spoke to the Synod of Bishops precisely on the issue of synodality. His speech was, in his own words, in response to St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, in which he basically asks the larger Christian community for ways to reimagine the Petrine ministry in a Church healed of schism. Bartholomew suggested that for the Eastern and Western Churches to heal their millennium of division, it would be essential that the Petrine ministry be balanced by a rediscovery of synodality in the West:

It is well known that the Orthodox Church attaches to the synodical system fundamental ecclesiological importance. Together with primacy, synodality constitutes the backbone of the Church’s government and organization…. This interdependence between synodality and primacy runs through all levels of the Church’s life: local, regional and universal. (Synodus Episcoporum Bolletino, 30)

Apparently, Pope Francis is interested in the Patriarch’s suggestion. In a 2015 address marking the fiftieth anniversary of the re-establishment of the Synod, Pope Francis reminded us that the only authority in the Church is the authority of service. The pope, he said, is not above the Church, he is a member of the Church, a baptized person among the baptized and a bishop among the bishops; as successor of Peter he presides in love over the whole Church. He also made clear that the “Synod is with Peter and under Peter, not to dictate but to guarantee unity.” This sounds like balancing synodality and primacy.

Striving to make the Church walk together on a path of renewal is a big enough challenge for anyone. Francis has certainly worked to fulfill the mandate of the cardinals who elected him to reform the Roman Curia. In keeping with principles he enunciated from the beginning of his papacy, he has created the structure for a Curia in service of the local churches and focused on mission over maintenance. The document reforming the Curia is called Praedicate evangelium (Preach the Gospel) and the Dicastery for Evangelization has the highest ranking in the new organization. Laypeople, including women, can hold positions of leadership. But like his predecessor John XXIII, who sixty years ago addressed an encyclical, Pacem in terris, to the whole world, inviting everyone to work together for peace, Francis sees the Church’s mission as much more external than internal. He wants the Church to lead the whole world in recognizing that we are all part of God’s family and have to live as sisters and brothers with all people and with all creation.

This first Jesuit pope has shown the world that his selection of the name Francis was more than symbolic. While he most certainly brings his Ignatian spirituality and charism for discernment to his exercise of the Petrine Office, he also embodies the spirit of the poor man of Assisi for the twenty-first century. Mission, for St. Francis and for Pope Francis, begins with an encounter with the all-merciful God, which sparks an overflowing joy that one is compelled to share. That is mission. When Pope Francis challenged the Church early in his pontificate to stop looking like Lent without Easter and to stop finger wagging and condemning as a way to spread the Gospel, he was drawing from his namesake. Like his patron saint, the pope has preached and worked for peace throughout his pontificate and has acknowledged the ongoing violence that many fail to see. He speaks about the Third World War being fought piecemeal and he has not shied away from war zones in order to personally bring a message of peace.

Francis is in line with all of his recent predecessors as a force for peace among nations and eager to serve in mediation. Yet even here, there is a particular style, an imitation of Jesus and a vicinanza, a nearness, like the words of Pope John in that moonlight speech. Francis traveled to war-torn Iraq, the first pope to do so. He met with Indigenous leaders in Canada who had been harmed by the Church’s ministers and traveled to Congo and to South Sudan as a messenger of peace and to demonstrate his solidarity with those who have suffered the ravages of war. We have witnessed his tireless preoccupation with the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Trying to walk the diplomatic tightrope so that he might be able to serve as a negotiator for peace did not win him much support. But he did not deny that Russia is the aggressor and even jeopardized advances in ecumenism with the Russian Orthodox with his harsh words about Patriarch Kirill’s support of Putin’s war. Every Sunday he reminds the pilgrims in Saint Peter’s Square to pray for “martyred Ukraine.” He also prays for Russians, many of whom have a distorted view of the war through no fault of their own and many who favor peaceful coexistence with Ukraine. Both sides are necessary to bring about peace.

It was on the Vigil of the Feast of Saint Francis in 2021 that Pope Francis signed his encyclical Fratelli tutti (Brothers and Sisters All) at the tomb of the famous peacemaker whose writings gave rise to the name of the document. With this encyclical and the earlier Laudato si’ (2015), the pope has given the global Church a healthy dose of Franciscan spirituality: he highlights the interrelatedness of all creation and the need to live as brothers and sisters, in fraternity with all humanity and indeed all of creation. In Fratelli tutti, written in the midst of the global pandemic, he laments how humanity failed to come together to address this common threat, and he urges humanity to start building the friendships and relationships that will be necessary to avoid resorting to war and violence and to work together to address the accelerating climate catastrophe. Just as the human family and all creation are interrelated, so are all the issues that threaten human existence, human dignity, and human life today. Climate change disproportionately affects the poorer countries of the world that consume less of the fossil fuels that have caused the warming. The loss of islands, the destruction of land and biodiversity, and the unusual and brutal weather patterns all lead to greater migration, even as the wealthier nations close their doors to the suffering migrants trying to preserve their lives. All of this is a form of violence.

Why should the pope be the only one who sees the unsustainability of the present situation? Are we so unaccustomed to having prophets arise from within the Church’s hierarchy? Are human beings today so suspicious of any kind of organization that the common good becomes unthinkable? What will it take for all the leaders of the Church and of other world religions to speak as forcefully about the need for structural change and allow human values to supersede economic values for the common good and common survival of all?

To consider the common good, without rooting the common good in one’s own personal needs or advantage, requires the chief theological virtue of charity. We rarely consider charity as a political solution; rather, what the government is unable or unwilling to do for the disadvantaged is often left to private or institutional “charity.” In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis invokes the classical meaning of disinterested love and suggests that charity unites the abstract and the institutional; it moves from the theoretical good to the desire to help that results from a direct encounter with a person in need. But as even the case of the Good Samaritan reveals, there is always a need for a structure or institution, like the inn, to provide the help an individual is unable to offer. The pope reminds us of the ancient yet ever-present reality of concupiscence, a proclivity to selfishness and narrow interests, that always has to be confronted and overcome through fraternity. Any perfect world order in theory will need to recognize the reality of human weakness; systems cannot just be put in place, nor can we think our way through every problem with a technological or market-based solution.

Following a creative exegesis of the Good Samaritan parable, Pope Francis offers a reflection on a more open world in contrast to the closed world described in the encyclical’s beginning. The more open world is based on human relationships that, like the Good Samaritan, transcend national and ethnic boundaries. He decries the results of the breakdown of such transcendent relationships: racism, which never goes away but periodically retreats; anti-immigrant sentiment; and lack of attention to the “hidden exiles” in our midst, like the disabled or abandoned elderly. The common good requires a recognition of the great worth of each person. Solidarity is born of conversion and is more than sporadic generosity. Francis re-introduces the concept of gratuitousness (not being useful to the market), a concept that removes relationships and even politics from the realm of the utilitarian to one more responsive to the God who allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike. Not everything has to be limited to political favors and even exchanges; in fact, the common good requires a certain gratuitousness, which is quite different from the “pay to play” system at work in our country that excludes so many.

“Dialogue and friendship” are introduced as a part of the path to a more fraternal world. Pope Francis describes dialogue as “approaching, speaking, looking at, listening, coming to know, understanding, and finding common ground” (FT 198). Dialogue is not the exchange of opinions, but rather a desire to come together. Selfish indifference or violent protest can undermine or end dialogue. Dialogue requires clear thinking, rational argument, a variety of perspectives, and the contribution of different fields of knowledge and points of view. It does not result in relativism but is rather a search for truth. Respect for the dignity of the other and the recognition that persons are more valuable than material things or ideas are necessary for a dialogue that contributes to the common good.

Pope Francis, in the spirit of St. John XXIII, has been opening the windows of the Church to allow a fresh breeze in. And as with John XXIII, there has been considerable resistance to what he is imagining, with the opposition to it far more blatant than it was for his predecessor. Francis, like the council that forms his ecclesiology, is interested in a Church in service to the world, filling that world with the Gospel in deed as much as in word. The recent announcement that lay delegates, including women, will be voting members of the synod, demonstrates the pope’s willingness to make the synod more representative and responsive to the whole Church. The embrace of synodality has the potential to revive and enliven the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This Church will strive to lead humanity to greater fraternity and unity—for our survival, and hopefully for our flourishing.

Bishop John Stowe OFM Conv was ordained as the third bishop of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, in May 2015. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Lecture delivered by Bishop Stowe on April 11, 2023, at Loyola University, Chicago.

Reproduced with permission from Commonweal Magazine.


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