If you thought Pope Francis had a master plan for reforming the Catholic Church, you might want to think again.
According to one of the rising stars among Church historians, Francis is putting the emphasis elsewhere.
"The Church that begins the Year of Mercy has been energized by a Jesuit pope who appears much more intent on effecting an 'aggiornamento' open to the future than someone who is setting out a long-range plan of 'reforms'," says Massimo Faggioli.
The Italian historical theologian, who has been teaching the past several years at St Thomas University in Minnesota, makes this observation: "Francis is an excellent strategist, but he is no planner."
To some that might sound strange, even a contradiction.
How can the pope be good at strategizing, yet have no overall plan or program to reform the Church? What exactly, then, is he trying to achieve?
Faggioli says it is "aggiornamento." The concept -- which means, "bringing up to date" or "up to speed" -- was one of the central goals that Pope John XXIII envisioned for the Church when he announced his inspired decision to convene the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Unfortunately, John only lived long enough to launch the project, having died after the first of what would eventually be four council sessions. Nonetheless, he has always been seen as the central figure of that monumental Church event and the driving force behind the reforms it brought about.
Was it merely by chance or was it by divine providence that Francis' first 1000 days as Bishop of Rome should culminate on the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II, marked on December 8 the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception?
That can be debated. But one thing that cannot be denied is that the current pope chose the joint date of these two milestones as the occasion to open the Holy Door at St Peter's Basilica for a yearlong Jubilee of Mercy.
In the bull of indiction for the extraordinary holy year, Francis stresses the "great need" to keep Vatican II "alive," because -- among other things -- it was "a true breath of the Holy Spirit" and it gave the Church a sense of "responsibility to be a living sign of the Father's love in the world."
He continues by quoting Paul VI's address at the close of Vatican II, saying, "A wave of affection and admiration flowed from the council over the modern world of humanity. … messages of trust issued from the council to the present-day world. The modern world's values were not only respected but honored, its efforts approved, its aspirations purified and blessed. …"
Pope Francis calls the council as a "new phase" of the Church's history. It is one where the Church is more fully immersed in the world, in dialogue with its people and the channel of God's mercy towards sinners, the poor, the weak and the marginalized.
And as Bishop of Rome he obviously sees his mission as reviving this project that was begun at the council, but which was severely crippled by a mentality of retreat, restoration and self-referentialism.
Not everyone in the Church shares Francis' vision, as we all know. But according to one Italian bishop, that's because they are really at odds with the Second Vatican Council.
"Francis has spoken about a piecemeal World War III and, to use that same image, there is a piecemeal offensive against Vatican II in which we see the pope as the direct objective and the council as the real target of the attacks," says Bishop Domenico Mogavero of Sicily.
"The enemies of Francis are enemies of the council," he says, according to an article published over the weekend.
"The criticisms they are leveling at him are essentially the same that were aimed at John XXIII who, like him, had the courage and farsightedness to call for a prophetic Church that could read the signs of the times," the 68-year-old bishop maintains.
Others go even further.
"Francis has more problems in Rome and at the Vatican than anything he runs into wherever he travels around the world," notes Francesco Peloso, a longtime Italian analyst of church matters.
He says that includes even "the most sensitive and riskiest" issues relating to his own physical safety and security.
"The traps set by the Curia may be even more dangerous," Peloso claims in his article from last weekend.
He says this paradox was made clear by the pope's recent trip to Africa, which went off without a hitch, while back at the Vatican opposition has only stiffened to Francis' undeniable aim of decentralizing the Church.
All this naturally leads us back to Massimo Faggioli's suggestion that the pope, who will be 79 on Dec. 17, is a brilliant strategist but a lousy planner. And it forces us to ask some serious questions, such as: "Does Francis have an outline or model of where, exactly, he wants to take the Church? Does he have certain goals for specific, concrete reforms? Or is he only trying to open up a dialogue and process of group discernment?"
Certainly, he has given more than a glimpse -- albeit piecemeal, to use that phrase in another context -- of the type of reformed, renewed and outward-looking Church about which he dreams. We see it most clearly in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, and in the interview with La Civiltà Cattolica (and the other Jesuit publications) – both of which appeared in 2013. We grasp it in the brief homilies he offers spontaneously at daily Mass. And we saw a bit more of it more recently when he offered some profound reflections on the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops.
So, is there an overarching plan?
Most likely Pope Francis knows exactly which reforms he'd like to make, but realizes there are huge obstacles to achieving them. However, that doesn't mean he will abandon his goals, just that he will continue to search for creative ways to achieve them.
One thing is absolutely evident. Like John XXIII he is a man of deep discernment who relies with unshakeable trust on the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The Jubilee of Mercy, itself the fruit of such inspiration, could prove to be another monumental moment in the Church's recent history. And, depending on how the Spirit moves the pope, it could be bigger than anything anyone has yet imagined.
[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]
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