Since 2013, Pope Francis has endeavored to shift church culture

This story appears in the Four Years of Francis feature series. View the full series.
Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus from his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square Feb. 26 at the Vatican. (CNS/Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus from his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square Feb. 26 at the Vatican. (CNS/Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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In January, the Vatican office that oversees Catholic priests, sisters and brothers in global religious orders had a plenary session. Seven women attended as representatives of the world's women religious.

That fact may not seem significant for those outside the Vatican, as sisters and nuns obviously represent a large proportion of those in religious life. But it was the first time in decades that women had been present at such a meeting, the result of a direct request to Pope Francis.

When some 900 leaders of the world's congregations of women religious met with Francis last May, they asked why they were not being invited.

"Speaking about someone who is absent is not of the Gospel," the pope responded. "You must be present." He promised he would speak to the head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, about the issue.

Sr. Carmen Sammut, who leads the Rome-based global umbrella group of women religious called the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), said in a recent interview that since the pope made his promise, a change had been made.

"We were invited and we could speak," she explained. "That was a real structural change."

Four years into this pontificate, many of the changes taking place at the upper echelons of the church echo the sisters' experience: Something that at first glance could appear minor takes on a wider meaning. Transformations build slowly as a culture shifts.

As Francis enters his fifth year, some ask just what this pope, who famously said he had come "from the ends of the Earth" for the job, has achieved. What's more, they wonder, how will the things he has not accomplished be carried forward?

Three of Francis' closest episcopal collaborators said in recent NCR interviews that the pope is playing a very long game, trying to shift the church's vision of its mission and its stance toward the world. Several theologians say, in doing that, he is also changing the wider culture's opinion of the church.

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Pope Francis greets Sr. Carmen Sammut during an audience with the heads of women's religious orders at the Vatican in May 2016. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the only American who serves on Francis' advisory Council of Cardinals, said the pope has been a "blessing for our church and our world."

"I know there's been some controversies of late, but the Holy Father's teaching and example are a great source of encouragement to our people," said O'Malley. "He has changed the conversation about the church in our country, and we are very grateful for that."

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who advises Francis on episcopal appointments as a member of the Congregation for Bishops, said the pope is calling for a recognition that because the wider culture is no longer Christian, let alone Catholic, the church must change its demeanor.

"This is a very different culture than even 25 years ago," said Wuerl. "We know now we have to move from what was a much more comfortable maintenance posture into a much more challenging, Gospel-driven, evangelizing discipleship, to use [Francis'] words."

Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, who was elevated to the cardinalate by Francis last November, said the pope is bringing the atmosphere of newness experienced during the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council back to the church.

"I don't think that I have had a sense of the freshness of the council more than what I do at this point," said Cupich. "As I read the reaction of people to him I think back to how people were responding to the council with that same sense of hopefulness and joy and pride about the church that we saw at that time."

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Inverting the pyramid

Many of the headlines about Francis continue to focus on Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation he released in April 2016 following two worldwide meetings of bishops at the Vatican, called synods, in 2014 and 2015.

While the central focus of the document was primarily a challenge to Catholics to see grace even in the most imperfect of family situations, much of the commentary about it has focused on its apparent openness to allowing divorced and remarried persons to take Communion in some circumstances.

Beyond the particulars of the exhortation, however, several observers said they think the way Francis developed the document is one of the biggest windows he has offered about what lasting changes he wants to make in the church.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, a moral theologian at Boston College, said she thought the pope used the synod process as a way to consider possible developments in church teaching without causing open divisions in the church.

"I think he recognized wisely that if he simply came out with changes in teaching from above, it would provoke division in the church, just as Humanae Vitae had done," she said, referring to Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical that affirmed the church's opposition to birth control. "He avoided doing that."

Francis began the 2014 and 2015 synod process by having the Vatican synod office distribute a questionnaire to dioceses around the world on people's experiences of family life.

At the beginning of the 2014 synod, the pope told the assembled bishops that no subject was to be considered off the table and that they should "speak boldly and listen with humility."

Cahill, who described Francis as a "wonderful ecclesial politician," said the pope's focus on discussion and use of consultation is a "major change" and is his "primary contribution" to the institution of the papacy.

"When has teaching on sex and marriage ever been handled like that?" she asked, before answering: "Never."

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Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his general audience at the Vatican Dec. 21, 2016. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Wuerl, who participated in both of the 2014 and 2015 meetings, said he sees Francis using the worldwide gatherings of prelates to carry forward a wider agenda of sharing some of the pope's responsibilities with others.

"I think what it's doing is it's trying to put into practice what the Second Vatican Council spoke so clearly about, that the oversight of the church universal is the responsibility of all bishops, with Peter and never without him," said the cardinal.

"It's the not just the role of the bishop of Rome to govern the universal church," he continued. "It's in communion and working with, in consultation with, in collaboration with all of the bishops."

"The pope is saying it's not all the pope," said Wuerl. "There has to be this commonality with the bishops and the most dramatic form of it that we've seen so far is the idea of having two synods back-to-back."

O'Malley said he thought that Francis' decision to ask for input from lay Catholics brought a sense of enthusiasm and inclusion to the endeavor.

Joking that at first he worried that the questions sent from the Vatican were "awfully complicated" and elicited a "collective groan" from parish rectories, O'Malley said: "Much to my surprise, people were very enthusiastic."

"What amazed me was how happy the people were to be asked," he said. "What I thought would have been considered a bother, at least in our diocese, was an exercise that people were very happy to be a part of."

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Sammut, who is also the general superior of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, said she thought the pope used the synod to enact an inversion of the traditional pyramid structure of the church, where the pope had been at the peak above everyone else.

"The triangle is upside-down and it is the faithful who are on top, and the leaders, whether it is the bishops or the bishop of Rome, are at the bottom to make sure that the sense of the faith of the faithful is taken into consideration and that everybody can have a say in decision-making," she said.

"Of course, the leader has to make the final decisions, but it is on what he has heard and felt by everybody," she continued.

Structural reform

Francis' reforms of the Vatican's central bureaucracy have mostly occurred quite quietly, over longer periods of time. He moved most quickly after his election to professionalize the Vatican's financial structures, creating a new centralized Secretariat for the Economy.

The pope also recently finished consolidating some of the Vatican's disparate offices into two new larger entities: the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

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(NCR staff)

Several Vatican staffers said that while his reforms of the Roman Curia may seem small from the outside, Francis has had a big impact over how people working in the offices understand their roles.

One midlevel staffer said the pope is not focused on just consolidating offices but "making the Curia more conscious of the fact that it is at the service of the universal church and is not meant to direct the universal church."

"If reform were just institutional, or shuffling around of offices, people could just play a new game in the modified system," the staffer said.

Wuerl said Francis' structural reforms are focusing on three main aspects: putting forth the spiritual vision that should underline the Vatican's work, changing the personnel running its various offices as needed, and realigning some of the tasks assigned to those offices.

"I think we're seeing all three things," said the cardinal. "He's moving, I think, at a very judicious pace because it's such a huge institution."

Cupich also said Francis does not want to just rearrange the Vatican's structures, but lay out a new vision for their work.

"I think that he does have a sense of purpose and mission about what he's doing," Cupich said. "He's not doing reform just to do reform, he's doing it because of the vision that's there. He wants to situate the church for its future in order to live out that vision."

The Chicago prelate said he thought the pope is trying to develop changes at the Vatican based on what he thinks God wants most for the church.

"He's constantly going back to that question: Where is Christ calling us now?" Cupich said of Francis. "And then let's build any kind of reform around that. He has to have that vision, but it's a vision about what Christ is wanting us to do, not what he wants to do."

O'Malley said the pope's work in reforming the Vatican bureaucracy "has been very challenging and yet very urgent and important." He noted that when the cardinals met to elect Francis in 2013 after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, one of the things they agreed upon was the need for reform.

"Pope Francis has come in and faced the challenges," said the cardinal. "There's always resistance to change, but the Holy Father remains very serene and focused."

Referring to his own work as the head of the papal commission Francis established for the protection of minors, O'Malley said the pope has "accomplished a lot certainly in the area of child protection with the establishment of the commission and the educational programs that are being carried out in the Curia itself and with the bishops' conferences around the world."

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Cahill said she thinks the pope is taking his time in rolling out reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy to allow appropriate time for discussion about what is most needed from the church's command center. She also said she thinks the pope does not want to simply determine what happens to individual offices on his own authority.

"He realizes that it doesn't always work to do something from the top down," said the theologian. "And I'm sure he's struggling with, 'OK, but when is it really important to intervene?' "

"He's realizing, too, that you have to get buy-in with the lower levels, with the local bishops and local bishops' conferences and all the priests and religious and all the laity," said Cahill.

"The lower down he can start his reform, the more successful it's going to be in the long run," she said. "And I think he realizes that if there are recalcitrant bishops and cardinals, their power is going to be eroded if the people don't support them."

Sammut related the pope's experience in trying to reform the Vatican to the experience of the heads of religious orders who try to change the way their orders function.

"It's easy to have a vision and to have people understand and want to enter into that vision," she said. "But when it comes then to changing structures, it is extremely difficult because you always have a percentage of people who want to keep to the old because that's what they know and that's what feels safe."

Personal example

Some of the longest-lasting impressions of Francis' papacy come from its earliest moments: his decision to live at the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta hotel instead of the apostolic palace, his paying of his hotel bill in person, and an early Angelus prayer reference to German Cardinal Walter Kasper's book on mercy as the essence of the Gospels.

Noting the simple way the pope has carried himself since the beginning of his ministry, Wuerl said that Francis has also refocused the mission of the papacy into one of giving example for how Christians should act.

"What overrides everything here is ... what the Holy Father is also doing is bringing a personal witness," Wuerl said. "The way he speaks, the way he presents himself, the trimming away of so much of the trappings of office that have come from an earlier age.

"I think that's going to be the most striking and enduring quality: helping all of us get back to a more Gospel focus," said Wuerl.

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Pope Francis visits the neonatal unit at San Giovanni Hospital in Rome Sept. 16, 2016. The visit was part of the pope's series of Friday works of mercy during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

O'Malley said Francis has a "unique pastoral sense" that helps him understand what the people of today's world need most. The Boston cardinal pointed to the Jubilee Year of Mercy as one example.

"In my lifetime, I've never experienced a jubilee that has impacted people's lives all over the way that one has," he said.

"Most other holy years, most Catholics in the pews had no idea that there was even a holy year going on," he said. "We had thousands and thousands of people come to the cathedral and through the holy door. So many people returned to the sacrament of reconciliation. So many parishes involved in works of mercy and taking care of the homeless and the sick."

Wuerl said he thinks Francis' pontificate has marked a new era for the church.

"This is the pontificate that has said definitively, 'Let's look and speak and act more like that early Christian community,' " said the Washington cardinal. "There's no turning back."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

A version of this story appeared in the March 10-23, 2017 print issue under the headline: Four years of Francis: unique pastoral sense.

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