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Best of 2013: Advice for the Pope on reforming the Church

  • 14 January 2014

The Church isn't offering many endearing images to its stoic believers of late. But one will stay with me for many years. That wonderful moment in March when Jorge Mario Bergoglio walked out onto the Vatican balcony with his simple but inviting Fratelli e sorelle, buona sera! — Brothers and sisters, good evening! — still sends a thrill up my spine.

Along with the rest of the watching crowd in St Peter's Square, I thought he'd seemed rather stunned, almost overwhelmed just prior to this emergence. Then came this incredibly pastoral moment followed by the next, his appeal to all of us to pray for him. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed square as people delightedly complied, an unforgettable moment.

In the intervening six months, I've wondered: where will he take believers? His recent analogy with the Church as a busy public hospital dispensing vital services was one of the most eloquent for some time from an ecclesiastical leader. Is he re-imagining our Church, amidst its terrible predicaments? I wonder how much he seeks to draw the lay world inside the structure, to tap its wisdom, its experience of these revolutionary times of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Forgive some tilting at windmills. But I wish he'd invite me to be his temporary consultant, to offer him advice for his next 500 days.

The laity has a lot to offer.

Some of us have lived inside big secular institutions that have experienced their own existential crises. Many of their established systems were found wanting, their whole mission seeming in peril.

And various organisations have fought back, their social-licence-to-operate restored after major setbacks. Think BP after various environmental challenges, Westpac in the 1990s, political parties who re-invent themselves to be fit-for-purpose (hopefully). Believe it or not, the US Army post-Vietnam bears close analysis for its rebuilding skills.

The institutional Church must re-earn trust in similar ways. Maybe it should even consult some of the specialist disaster-managers employed at these times, who focus on calamity plus public expectations plus internal ethics, that is, more than mere 'spin'.

Indeed the relationship between these secular organisations and their 'consumers' altered profoundly during their dark nights.

So what would I suggest, as Pope's consultant? Fairly smartly, I'd propose a substantial, largely public, Vatican-led inquiry, into why the Church has been so troubled by sexual abuse across various countries. Was it due to priestly formation, celibacy, parish structure, sexual orientation, lack of ongoing sexual counselling,