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Life beyond Pope Francis

  • 11 April 2016


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

For 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