It is time for reform, but what kind of reform?

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In a beautiful homily by Pope Francis to the assembled cardinals and bishops, the need for reform was made clear once again.

Francis stresses one more time that the church is about the marginalized, those on the periphery.

There is some indication that this homily may be an especially significant one. First he had just named twenty new cardinals, and this homily was specifically directed at them as well as members of the current hierarchy. Second, it comes at a time when columnist David Gibson notes the evidence suggests that traditionalists may feel they are winning the battle to slow down the momentum of reform. For this reason others felt the pope needed to do something to show that reform is going to go forward.

Francis pointedly states that we can either “fear to lose the saved,” or “want to save the lost.” He speaks of the excessive fear of scandalizing the faithful, which has always been a problem within the church. A pastor might tell a bridegroom to receive communion on his wedding day even if he was guilty of mortal sin, rather than scandalize the faithful at the wedding by not receiving communion. Of course this penchant for avoiding scandal was also instrumental in making possible the lengthy priestly abuse crisis. Better to let a priest continue molesting children than admitting to the faithful that such a thing could ever happen in the holy Catholic Church.

Many have asked, ‘but what does Francis really want?’ I think we only know part of the answer to that question. As he made clear again in this fiery sermon, like Jesus, he is saying that what we are doing as a church, as the leaders of the church, is not good enough. He tells us that we must not only welcome others, but go and reach out to the lost sheep. He is calling for a radical change in what it means to be bishop and cardinal. What matters to Jesus, Francis says, “is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family.” He contrasts that mission of service to those who are scandalized even by an act of healing, openness, or any action outside their “mental and spiritual boxes.” He chides those who see as scandal any “caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.” He is calling on his priests, bishops and cardinals to embrace the Jesus of the gospels and truly reach out and serve their people.

But what does this mean in practical terms? We are limited to a few tidbits which we cannot be sure will even happen. Some changes in the structure of the Vatican curia are on the table, although even their resistance is gathering to major aspects of those changes. There is talk of communion for divorced Catholics, but once again there appears to be strong opposition.

Francis is not a liberal reformer. He is not invested in some of the same issues that many liberals are, such as advocating for a married and female clergy. Instead, Francis is a radical gospel reformer. The reform of Francis goes deeper than a few specifics. He is saying the present structure interferes with the mission of Jesus’ church. Radical change in the way we do things is necessary if we expect to be true, authentic followers of Jesus. Each of us as individuals but especially church leaders must quit being staunch defenders of some restrictive notion of orthodoxy and embrace Jesus’ mission of love and service to all. What this means for the nuts and bolts of church structure and practice may be in question. But before visible, observable change can really occur something else has to happen.

The hierarchy must first get the message. They must read again the Scriptures and see Jesus preaching that change must come to individuals and to the practice of Judaism. Repent or ‘metanoia’ as we know really means to change your mind. Jesus asked the religious leaders of his day to change their minds, to take another look at their religious practices to see that as in Luke 18:9-14, it was the tax collector who left the temple justified, not the Pharisee. Until the hierarchy fully embraces the reality that it has too often missed the most important element of its mission, and needs to change its way of being priest and bishop, real change cannot come to this church. The change Francis is seeking is in hearts and minds. In that arena we still have a long way to go.


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