Pope Francis' reforms will not be blocked

Rome — Pope Francis is bound and determined to make sure that nothing derails his mission of reforming the Catholic Church.

He made that clear on Sunday, Nov. 8, when he did, yet again, what no other pope has ever done before -- openly and unequivocally acknowledge the latest journalistic exposés about financial corruption within the Vatican.

"I know that many of you are upset by reports the past several days about confidential documents of the Holy See that were stolen and published," he told people gathered in St Peter's Square for the noontime Angelus.

The reference was to two new books released last week that contain papers that one or more Vatican employees illegally took and gave to journalists.

"So I'd like to tell you, first of all, that stealing those documents is a crime. It is a deplorable act that is not helpful," he said.

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Francis said he already knew about those texts and had taken measures some time ago to clean up the financial misdeeds they reveal.

Then he made this promise:

I want to assure that this sad event will certainly not deter me from the work of reform that we are pursuing with my collaborators and the support of all of you. 

Yes, the support of the whole church, because the church is renewed by prayer and the daily holiness of every baptized member.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the reform and renewal Pope Francis has in mind is principally about clearing out the merchants from the Vatican's temple, to paraphrase the title of one of the scandal books he mentioned.

His enemies within the Roman Curia and the worldwide Catholic hierarchy certainly know that's not what it is about.

At least it's not primarily about that.

But they are eager to use the seemingly irreversible state of financial corruption inside the Vatican and other controversies -- such as the synod debates over divorced and remarried Catholics -- as a way to weaken the pope's resolve in carrying out the real reform he's aiming at.

In case you need to be reminded of exactly what that is, dust off your copy of Evangelii Gaudium. That apostolic exhortation from November 2013 is the blueprint of Francis's pontificate and -- as he has confided with his Vatican aides -- the most important document he's published so far.

It contains the broad principles for reforming the papacy, the church's central governing structure and the "style" of ministry to the poor and people on the margins of church and society.

It is far more radical and threatening than that, at least to Catholics who believe the only true reform is one that would try to recreate a Church that existed somewhere between 16th century and the pontificate of Pius XII (who died in 1958).

And Pope Francis is not going there.

"I dream of a 'missionary option', that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today's world rather than for her self-preservation," he says in EG 27.

"Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: 'We have always done it this way'," he explains six paragraphs later, calling for "bold and creative" action in "rethinking goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization" all throughout the church.

This is much bigger than anything like closing down the Vatican bank or decreeing that Roman Curia monsignors have to abandon their spacious apartments and live in residential communities for the clergy.

Instead, Francis' reform means getting rid of "certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots" or "may be beautiful". Why? As he says in EG 43, "They no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel."

This sort of talk is dangerous and has the shrill scream of heresy for traditionalists.

But nothing like the next lines in that same paragraph of the exhortation when Pope Francis says this:

"At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people's lives."

He quotes St Thomas Aquinas, who quotes St Augustine, noting that Church precepts "should be insisted upon with moderation 'so as not to burden the lives of the faithful' and make our religion a form of servitude." 

The pope says God's mercy is the gold standard and "it ought to be one of the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church and her preaching". There is much more in Evangelii Gaudium that disturbs Catholics opposed to Francis' reforms, including some priests and bishops.

This has been said before, but it needs to be repeated over and over again. This is clear from the reactions provoked by the two new scandal books.

There is still the perception among many that pope is the CEO of the Catholic church who was chosen to clean up financial corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican.

Alexander Stille epitomizes this thinking with these words from his article that appeared on Nov. 6 in the New Yorker

The coalition that elected him has become divided over social issues, but cleaning house was perhaps the principal mandate of Francis' papacy, and the current scandal may remind everyone of that—including the Pope.

Stille believes Francis' reform efforts "appeared weakened after the bruising theological battles" that took place at the last gathering of the Synod of Bishops.

But he thinks "the net result of the new leaks case will be to somewhat strengthen Francis's position, and to give new impetus to his efforts at reform."

That part is certainly true.

But, to repeat: the reform is much bigger than cleaning house inside "a state within a city that is the capital of another state," as the Economist described the "oddity" of the Vatican in another article on the recent leaks.

So don't be surprised when the next "scandal" or "controversy" is rolled out. The opponents of change and reform have shown in the past that they rarely give up.

[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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