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Life beyond Pope Francis



As Pope Francis begins his fourth year in office, questions are inevitably raised, as to whether the changes that he has brought to the Catholic Church will last beyond his time in office. For some the questioning is hopeful; for others, it is anxious

Pope FrancisFor others the question is trivial. The Pope has shown no interest in changing the things that for them matter: clerical celibacy, the exclusion of women from ordained ministry, and church teaching on homosexuality and contraception, for example.

They see the changes he has introduced as largely cosmetic and homiletic, a matter of style not substance.

Whatever of that, most Catholics have experienced the change he has brought as considerable. Through his actions and words he has embodied a church that seeks its centre at the edge by going out to nonbelievers and to Catholics estranged from their church.

He has lived simply, used liturgical symbols to underline compassion to asylum seekers and deployed the bully pulpit to discourage clericalism, careerism and judgmentalism among the clergy. He has put emphasis on welcoming people with divergent views rather than condemning their views. He has invited exchange of views on church discipline, and generally encouraged a more informal church.

These changes go deeper than style. They involve a re-imagining of Catholic faith and life that places at the centre of the church's attention the persons and world to which it reaches out, not institutional needs or the security of the community. That underlies the emphasis on not judging and giving priority to persons in adapting law, language and ritual. This shift comes out of a distinctive imagining of faith.

Some argue that, because he has made no significant changes in governance, Francis' changes will not survive him. His successors and the Roman Curia will be free to restore former expressions of church life. This argument highlights the need to embody vision in institutional structures. But good governance structures alone do not ensure the continuation of vision.

Others are apprehensive about the continuing silent opposition to Francis and his agenda among priests, bishops and Catholic groups. They believe the Pope's critics will see him out, and then try to recall the Church to its former path.


"The greatest threat to Francis' legacy may come from supporters who applaud his language, but fail to embody his words in changes to their personal and congregational life."


Whatever of that, I believe a far more significant threat to Francis' legacy will come from his supporters. That was true of the vision offered by John Paul II and confirmed by Benedict XVI: a disciplined, intellectually rigorous Church, distinguished from the secular world around it by the holiness of life of its members and the firmness of its boundaries.

It was crystallised in such catchwords as the New Evangelisation, the theology of the body, the distinctive priesthood and the primacy of truth.

This orientation and imagining of faith, attractive in its formulation, was undermined by its supporters. While tireless in using the catchwords and appealing to their authority against their Catholic opponents, they failed to embody the powerful vision in an attractive way of life.

They gave the church a prissy face, which together with the squabbling, authoritarianism and scandals of the Curia, and the uncovering of sexual abuse and its cover up, discredited the vision itself.

This suggests the greatest threat to Francis' legacy may come primarily from his supporters who applaud his language of not judging, anti-clericalism, going out to the secular world, adapting liturgical and other forms of discipline to people, respect for the environment, care for refugees and shaping a more just economy, but fail to embody these words in changes to their personal and congregational life.

Whether Francis' imagining of faith endures will depend on the extent to which Catholics' lives change as they put people who are at the margins of church and world at the centre of attention and pastoral strategy, and make of secondary importance the comfort of their own lives and congregations.

For example, Francis has called for Catholic families and religious communities to open their homes to refugees. This expresses his vision that focuses first on the faces of people at the margins and makes irrelevant differences in religion, race and culture.

But to accept his call is difficult because it conflicts with the unquestioning priority most of us give to meeting the needs of those who live in the home or religious community. So whether the acceptance of Francis' vision has moved beyond comfortably radical slogans will be shown by the degree to which this radical hospitality to people in need becomes the default position.

The same test can be put to other elements of Francis' vision. For example, he has insisted that concern for the environment is central to faith. If this concern enters the Catholic imagination, it will be shown in consequential changes to the ways Catholics and their communities travel, eat, consume and invest.

The future of Francis' vision of faith will depend less on what is done in Rome than in what is done in personal lives and in communities. If he receives only applause but not imitation, the catchcries associates with him will eventually be seen to serve a comfortable and self-focused agenda. In time they will yield to other more radical and demanding imaginings of faith and church life.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Pope Francis is respected by non-Catholics and non-believers. This is a fine testament to his vision and his leadership. He is a pastor and hasn't let his top job status affect that. Catholics have been through, and will continue to go through, repercussions from the sexual abuse issue. However, leaders need to be made of tough material, with a nice smile and Francis fits that bill.

Pam | 08 April 2016  

Perhaps the most constructive and enduring action that Francis could take would be to stack the College of Cardinals by appointing a large number of new cardinals from among the young and progressive bishops etc. so as to offset the power of the older reactionary faction. This could increase the probability that his successors would continue to build on his foundation and not roll everything back to the past?

Ginger Meggs | 08 April 2016  

It is up to each and every Catholic, and Christian, to change our lifestyles so that we do practical things to help the natural environment, challenge the culture of indifference towards the cruel treatment of refugees in this country, and become involved in creating a 'church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security' as Pope Francis has said. I see a huge gulf between the vision of Pope Francis and the reality of a typical Catholic Parish in Australia. Let's all get moving in the name of Christ. 'The harvest is great and the workers are few', as Jesus says. Has your local Parish Church yet offered to give sanctuary to asylum seekers? If not, get cracking. The Sisters of St Joseph are offering training for this, near the tomb of Saint Mary MacKillop at Penola House in Sydney. Google it and get going.

Grant Allen | 10 April 2016  

@Ginger Meggs, I would have held out hope in the efficacy of your wish before "The Joy of Love" come out. Prior to this I thought that Pope Francis was the one who would lead the Catholic Church into the 21st century. After his comments on same-sex unions and those who are transgender, it is just still business as usual in the Catholic Church.

Herman | 10 April 2016  

Pope Francis has been more than a breath of fresh air - more like a mini-cyclone which has the arch conservatives, both in the clergy and the laity, knuckle-white in their desperate grip on the old and irrelevant. His comments last week on primacy of conscience in the divorcee and the fact that in the non-excommunicated the sacraments should not be denied and his comment that the use of condoms to prevent the most lethal disease man has ever known (AIDS) is a very different matter from their use as a contraceptive, were both long overdue. It is notable also Fr Andrew, that he has not abandoned the fundamental truths regarding creation of life; the traditional nature of priesthood and the equality of all human beings regardless of gender. He seems to be the true embodiment of the spirit of Vatican II and renders some of the present day movements for change and renewal irrelevant.

john frawley | 10 April 2016  

The papacy is part of the problem. If we accept that the Eastern Orthodox and the reformed churches of the West are part of the Christian Church then we have to accept that the claims of the papacy and the governance arrangements built around it have not been accepted and are not part of the authentic leading of the Spirit of God. Whether the Catholic hierarchy will give up its power is another matter. AS for Francis himself, he appears to me to be more of a political showman, rather than a genuine reformer. And his failure to meet with the Australian survivors of clerical abuse in Rome recently supports that view. As for his recent encyclical, marriage is a participatory activity, and his speculations about it smacks of the blind leading the blind.

Lee Boldeman | 10 April 2016  

I think Pope Francis' greatest gift to the Catholic Church is the example of his own life. In this way he mirrors Jesus. Many Catholic hierarchs do not realise that they are not primarily bureaucrats although the Church does need to be administered well. I think the confusion between the working of the Holy Spirit and administration lies at the heart of most of the Church's problems. It is not sufficient for the leaders of the Church to make grand statements but to demonstrate Christ's example in their lives. Many just don't get it. That is the difference between the current Pope and them.

Edward Fido | 10 April 2016  

While he lives and breathes (albeit with only one good lung) I cannot bear to think about Life beyond Pope Francis. I sincerely hope there are no Cardinals thinking and calculating that they can bide the their time and bring back Papal Imperialism. Nor do I see any particular effort by Pope Francis to cultivate a successor in his image. Nor do I see him stopping to factional politics and appointing bishops of his own persuasion. First and foremost he strikes me as a Jesuit imbued with the Ignatian spirit, who meditates daily on the Life of Christ. In his words and in his deeds he reflects that spirit of Jesus that caused to weep over Jerusalem and cried out: "How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, but you would not let me!' Long may he reign. Long may his concern for the chickens of the catholic church, and indeed for all the chickens of mankind, long may that concern continue to soak through the all people of God.

Uncle Pat | 10 April 2016  

For over a thousand years the Church has been euro-centric with great power. Now churches exist in mainly secular societies which are multi cultural. The Pope with his South American background is facing these realities.

john ozanne | 10 April 2016  

"try to recall the Church to its former path."..... Pope Francis, in his remarks about divorced and remarried people, acknowledged that prevailing culture is an essential constituent in the vision and response of the Church. At a time when Earth's resources seemed unlimited, and tribal numbers seemed essential for progress, ideals were formulated to direct sexual expression to achieve this. Now with limited resources and over-population a problem, a re-thinking needs to be undertaken to adapt to the new situation. The ideals can remain the same, but their practical application needs revising. It won't be easy to adjust the path to find the right formula.

Robert Liddy | 10 April 2016  

The Pope’s recent “exhortation” reaches the key contentious issue -- whether people in adulterous relationships (having been divorced and later re-married) should receive Holy Communion – in chapter eight, paragraphs 299-304. Paragraph 299 says such people “need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities . . . Such persons need to feel, not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members . . . .” Is not-feeling-excommunicated the same thing as not-excluded-from-receiving-Communion? He doesn’t quite say. It all seems a bit ambiguous. You could take it either way. Paragraph 304 makes it even more ambiguous: “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” Stating a rule and providing a loophole to justify ignoring the rule all in one breath? A loophole through which one could drive a Mack truck.

Arnold Jago | 10 April 2016  

This article began wonderfully, drawing I suggest on Ricoeur's reimagining, but then alas, it all unravelled and became what it decried - judgemental.

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 10 April 2016  

It's all a bit like getting Turnbull after Abbott, isn't it. What a relief, we much preferred the nicer, smarter Turnbull. But after a while ... well, we still prefer Turnbull, but can see that not much has substantially changed. But meanwhile change happens, society moves along. The Catholic Church, in refusing to change, has isolated itself - not many people who grow up in 'developed' countries like Australia, are listening any more, not many people who grew up as Catholics, care anymore.

Russell | 11 April 2016  

Enjoy honeymoon guys.Carnival will soon be over and then Pope Muller!

Father John George | 13 April 2016  

So what is new Andrew? Your central point about living the change rather than applauding it is obviously true. Yet it applies equally to the teachings of the Christ in the gospels too. For what it is worth, I have valued those that motivate to change by living it themselves for quite some time and believe in telling their stories. There are modern martyrs about whom little is heard: we need to shout their names from the rooftops. Example is a powerful motivator. I seem to recall Pope Paul VI stating that a long time ago with respect toy evangelisation,

Ern Azzopardi | 13 April 2016  

Pope Frank is too good for the Roman Church. His changes will not survive after he's gone. It's high time the RC updated its ancient canon laws: (1) ridiculous and abnormal priest celibacy; (2) prevention of priests to marry; (3) forbidden contraception, while the world population grows especially in Latin America & Africa; (4) that women have NO influence in the Church, and cannot be ordained; & (5) infallibility of Papal statements. No human is infallible! Get with the times, Rome, for goodness' sake! RC Tony Abbott told Islam to reform!! What about the Roman Church, Tony!

Louw | 14 April 2016  

Amen to everything you say, Uncle Pat. And a smile for Ginger Meggs' suggestion that Francis should stack the College of Cardinals. Didn't work too well the last time that was tried, did it. For myself, I hold to the knowledge that the Holy Spirit always breaks through to renewal and refreshment of the Church. She has done so with Francis and will undoubtedly do so again, in the hearts of individuals as well as in the wider Church. And a blessing on that dear man in Rome.

Anna Summerfield | 14 April 2016  

It depends whether Church is seen as hierarchy or the people of God. I think that people have been strengthened and therefore more able to embrace ecumenical Christians and Interreligious groups. A larger percentage seem able to open their homes to various immigrants on an occasional basis, churches more so, and Church movements and organisations wholeheartedly. And for this Year of Mercy there is increasing desire to understand what in means individually being sensible to safety of their families. This is my hope.

Mary | 15 April 2016  

Since it is our responsibility to discern God's will for our mission in each present moment we live in, talking about future events that have not happened is pretty pointless. Stay in the present. Peace.

NamePapa Smurf | 15 April 2016  

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