Editorial: The pilgrim church revived under Pope Francis

by NCR Editorial Staff

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It was a bold, even audacious, assertion by then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in an intervention to fellow cardinals during the week preceding the conclave that elected him pope: the critique of a self-referential church that courts illness, a kind of theological narcissism, and, worse, spiritual worldliness. The antidote, he argued, was to go beyond confines of the church structure and travel to the peripheries, both the geographic and existential, to be with those on the margins in every sense of that phrase.

It was a call for a renewed engagement in the world, not on the basis of suspicion and an endless, numbing critique of cultures, as had been the case so often in the preceding 35 years, but on the basis of love and an evangelical zeal that required contact with humans in real time and in all circumstances.

The words obviously resonated with his peers, who elected him pope. How all of the words translate into day-to-day governance is sometimes difficult to discern. No item-by-item agenda for reform has been issued, but the general outlines have taken shape over two years, and the past weeks have been full of examples, including some powerful moments close to home.

It was not surprising that the Center for Family and Human Rights, one of a number of right-wing groups that view the world through the narrowest of apertures, would take issue with the fact that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences partnered with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs at a recent climate change conference. The charge was that Sachs and the United Nations are not as pure on the issue of abortion as the Center for Family and Human Rights and other anti-abortion groups would like.

What was new was that Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, would forcefully answer the criticism. "The Tea Party and all those whose income derives from oil have criticized us, but not my superiors, who instead authorized me, and several of them participated," he said.

Responding directly to the charge of collaborating with those who do not hold the same view as the church on the issue of abortion, Sorondo said, "Unfortunately, there is not only the drama of abortion, but there are also all these other dramas, in which you should be interested, because they are closely related. The climate crisis leads to poverty and poverty leads to new forms of slavery and forced migration, and drugs, and all this can also lead to abortion," he said.

"Instead of attacking us, why not enter into dialogue with these 'demons' to maybe make the formulation better," he continued.

It is enough to say that the response, long overdue to those who demand that the church's concerns and movements in the world conform to a tightly scripted and self-styled list of "orthodoxies," would not have occurred prior to the Francis papacy.

If Sorondo's response was evidence of papal approval to think anew and express opinions that might have been jarring in an earlier era, so was Cardinal Luis Tagle's talk at a major conference in Washington, D.C., on advancing the vision of the Second Vatican Council. The echo of Francis was strong in the remarks of the archbishop of Manila, Philippines, and newly elected president of Caritas International.

"Many people want to witness to Christ in some idealized past that they long for with nostalgia," said Tagle. "No, we witness to Christ now, here, where we are in our world. ... Part of the church's openness to humanity is to remind the rest of the world of human beings that have been forgotten."

And that openness "means getting ourselves dirty, stained, wounded by the existential realities" faced by the poor. "The church should smell like the world that it penetrates."

The following day, German Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke at the same theological conference on Vatican II co-hosted by the National Cathedral, Georgetown University and Marymount University in Arlington, Va. Kasper, a noted theologian and expert on ecumenism whose writings have influenced Francis, told participants that the pope "wants a listening magisterium" that takes into account the sensus fidei (also known as the sensus fidelium or "sense of the faithful").

Kasper spoke urgently of the need for Christian unity and a pragmatic ecumenism that was not bound to academic theological discussions. In that sense, he echoed Francis' message earlier in the week to a U.S. gathering observing the Day for Christian Unity.

"I am convinced it won't be theologians who bring about unity among us. Theologians help us, the science of the theologians will assist us," the pope said. "But if we hope that theologians will agree with one another, we will reach unity the day after Judgment Day. The Holy Spirit brings about unity. Theologians are helpful, but most helpful is the goodwill of us all who are on this journey with our hearts open to the Holy Spirit."

Kasper made the point that catholicity means all: "Women and men, young and old, clergy and laity. The laity are not only recipients but also actors. Not only objects, but much more, subjects in the church."

Francis, whose language from the very first has had a strong sense of movement about it, of journey, of accompaniment, of going to the margins, has set the church in motion in new ways. "Pilgrim people" is a less predictable image than "church militant." Pilgrims, as Vatican II and other documents often refer to us as church, wander and expect to be surprised, freer to encounter and understand things in new ways than are those sent to conquer and subdue.

A version of this story appeared in the June 5-18, 2015 print issue under the headline: The pilgrim church revived.

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