From the moment he walked onto the world stage as pope less than a year ago, Francis set the world spinning with speculation over what exactly he was doing and where he was leading the church.
Like a puzzle master doling out hints of the whole, Pope Francis seems to be comfortable letting us in on his vision a bit at a time. We risk missing keys to the larger picture if we fuss too much over discrete pieces. From the start, the pope has used the language of movement, of journey, of risk-taking, of not being afraid to make mistakes. His is increasingly a vision of a church on the move, existing most authentically not only outside the sanctuary and the safe structures of the institution, but on the margins of society.
Most recently, we have from Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, a detailed account of the pope's conversation in November with leaders of men's religious orders gathered in Rome. This appears to be another important segment of a corner of the puzzle that, while perhaps not as apparent as other elements, is fundamental to the rest. From the start, the pope has been slowly dismantling that portion of the clerical culture that has led to destructive secrecy, corruption and lack of accountability.
The conversation with the superiors general was an informal exchange, and reading the Spadaro account one gets the sense that more and more people in such situations, used to a certain formality in the past, are becoming comfortable with a pope who is not afraid of actual conversation, real questions and talk of human frailty.
While the exchange was clearly directed at religious leaders and bishops, Francis is certainly savvy enough to know that his plainspoken and sometimes blunt assessments are balm to those in the pews who have held such thoughts themselves but never expected to have them represented at the top levels of church leadership.
The headlines his comments generated were not inappropriate. After all, this was the pope warning that "formation is a work of art, not a police action" and that the result should not be the creation of "little monsters." How many of us sitting in the pews recognize those "little monsters" or have had our parishes disrupted by priests "who have hearts that are as sour as vinegar"?
That would be tough talk for any group to hear, but Francis also went on at length talking about the need for tenderness, for forgiveness. He made the distinction between sin and corruption. "Sinners are accepted [into religious life], but not people who are corrupt."
The conversation -- and we would urge all to read it in its entirety -- contains deep insights into human nature and the reality of life in community. As he has in other settings, Francis talked considerably about what makes for healthy living. He understands at a deep level that repairing elements of the institution that have caused the church so much trouble in recent years will take more than administrative fixes or structural realignments. He advised those assembled not to be afraid of conflict, nor to be afraid of seeking psychological assistance when necessary.
He warned against religious life being engaged as a means of escape from a "difficult and complex world." He emphasized the need for dialogue in several spots in his conversation and he issued a stern condemnation of the kind of hypocrisy -- thinking one thing but saying another to get ahead -- "that is the result of clericalism, which is one of the worst evils."
He is further convinced, he said at one point, of "the need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order really to become acquainted with the reality and life experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy."
All in all, good advice for the church at large, lay and ordained.