When Pope Francis announced last month the names of 19 prelates soon to become the church's latest cardinals, much media attention was given to the pastoral records of those men and the fact that most came from the global South. Francis wants a less European church and one more pastoral in nature, keeping with the vision of church that came out of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s.
At least one of the appointments -- a surprise to most church observers -- was that of Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato in the Philippines. The Cotabato archdiocese has never had a cardinal.
While most Catholics outside of Asia have probably never heard of the man, he is well-known among Asian Catholic leaders, among other things as the chief living intellectual architect of the pastoral ideas coming out of the 42-year-old Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Furthermore, the federation's vision of church has notably centered on the idea of the local church as the primary ecclesial entity.
From earliest Christian church history, the question of which church is primary, local or universal, has dogged theologians. Are local churches McDonald's-type franchises of Rome? Or is Rome primarily the unifying symbol of a network of local churches?
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The New Testament does not settle the matter as the word ekklesia is used in both the singular and plural forms.
That Francis wants a more decentralized church is not news. The early formation of his Council of Cardinals -- eight cardinals from different parts of the globe and his principal advisers -- was a sign he wanted to break through the intransigence of the centralizing forces within the Roman Curia.
Francis holds episcopal conferences in high regard. In his November apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, "The Joy of the Gospel," he wrote: "The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position 'to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit.' Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach."
If the spirit of Francis is pastoral by nature and receives its primary energy directly from the Gospels, if the message of Francis is to reach out to the needy "on the peripheries," if the desire of Francis is to decentralize church governing bodies, the question remains: What construct of church will sustain both this spirit and message? Which ecclesial structures, which theologies, does Francis have in mind?
Here the appointment of Quevedo offers more than a hint. Quevedo has written numerous papers aimed at putting meat on the bones of the Asian bishops' pastoral vision of local church. These bishops have at times been so excited about their vision they have referred to it as "a new way of being church."
This vision has been built on what the Asian bishops call the "triple dialogue," a church in dialogue with local cultures, with local religions and with the local poor who make up most of Asia. This vision seeks input, innovation and dialogue. It grows out of local circumstances and culture. This vision asserts the local church as primary. It argues that without respect for local culture the Christian message will fall on deaf ears.
Francis choosing Quevedo as one of his first cardinal appointments indicates the pope is already at work building his theological and pastoral team. The choice further shows Francis has more than a passing awareness of the ideas that have come out of Asia regarding church and church vision, ideas shared by a local church that some might view as "on the peripheries" of which Francis speaks.
Quevedo, meanwhile, has been a close colleague and mentor to the younger Manila Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a man very much like Francis -- and Quevedo -- in sentiment, inclination and vision.
Tagle also has solid theological foundations. At the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, he was a student of the now-retired Fr. Joseph Komonchak, a theologian who has written extensively on the notion of the local church.
Tagle completed his dissertation under Komonchak focusing on collegiality as understood by the bishops at Vatican II. Komonchak has called Tagle "one of the best students I had in over 40 years of teaching."
Growing here, then, is a synergy of theology and vision in support of not only a more decentralized church governing body, but also one that begins to outline the components of new church structures.
The vision of collegiality, perhaps the central ecclesial theme to emerge from Vatican II, is another way of speaking about the importance of local church. What the Asian church has done in the past 40 years is document the experiences of attempting to live out that vision.
At this point, Francis appears to be assembling theological and ecclesial visionaries to help him bring to life collective visions of Christian communities more closely tied with the local cultures, local needs and local hopes of the people of God -- wherever they come together to live out the Gospels.