Pope Francis, and a self-referential church

A theological conservative, Pope Francis has shown himself to be a man of compassion. It's a good combination.

Yme Woensdregt

I have refrained from writing about the election of Pope Francis. But I have to say that the new Pope has gotten my attention. My heart has been buoyed by the promise I’ve seen in his words and actions since being elected.

He seems to be a humble man who chose to live simply in a small apartment instead of the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires, and who travelled on buses and trams instead of in the church limousine.

A theological conservative, Pope Francis has shown himself to be a man of compassion. It’s a good combination, reminiscent of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement. In Buenos Aires, he showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock. There are also reports of the new pope being a “bridge builder” between Jesuits and other orders and, more widely, between conservatives and liberals in the church. How welcome that would be.

Two quotes from this formerly unknown cardinal stand out for me.

The first is about the poor and the world’s massive inequality. “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” he said at a 2007 Latin American bishops meeting. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

As Pope, he now has the ability to shift the church’s direction in significant ways on a much larger scale. I pray he has the strength to do so.

The second quote was about clerical privilege and insular church hierarchy. “We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self–referential church. It’s true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self–referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self–referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”

What a powerful insight and prophetic critique this is of what the church has become. Pope Francis calls us to focus outward, to the world. He would rather be the head of an imperfect church whose mission is focused on those beyond the walls, rather than one who seeks to appear strong or blameless at the cost of vulnerability and transparency. I dare to wonder and hope that if his preference prevails in Rome, it might even begin to change those church structures?

I fervently hope and pray that a Global South pope who deliberately chooses his name from Francis of Assisi will be that agent of change.

Today, we reverence Francis as a saint of the church. But in his day, he was a rebel, who felt himself called to reform the church. Today, the church needs rebuilding again, to be what the church was meant to be.

To make those changes, Pope Francis will need to address some very fundamental issues.

First, the church must be transformed again to become the defender of the poorest and most vulnerable. Biblically speaking, that should be the church’s first and primary work. Sadly, the hierarchy of many churches is not well known for those primary issues today.

Second, Pope Francis must address, with both compassion and justice the enormously painful reality of the church’s sexual abuse of children. The church must repent the horrible sins of pedophile priests and cover–up bishops. The church must seek reconciliation. Until that happens, the church’s reputation can never be restored.

Third, the new pope must reverse and redress the Vatican’s recent censure and, in my view, mistreatment of its own sisters. These Catholic religious women around the world represent the best of Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis could and should embrace the women of the church instead of suspecting and disrespecting them.

While these are enormous challenges for Pope Francis, the grace of God is sufficient for faithful church leaders to lead. And Jorge Bergoglio is said to be such a man of God — fervent in personal faith and consistent in prayer.

So let us all do what the first thing the new Pope asked the people in the square to do: pray for him.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook