"The spirit of the [Second Vatican] council is blowing through the synod," Cardinal Walter Kasper underlined in his Oct. 15 lecture on "The Ecclesiological and Ecumenical Vision of Pope Francis" at the University of Vienna.
Kasper flew to Vienna in the middle of the second week of the Synod of Bishops on the family to deliver the keynote lecture at the theology faculty's "dies facultatis" ("faculty day").
Kasper said the Oct. 5-19 synod was wholly in the tradition of a church on the move, as embodied in Vatican II. The discussions proceeded in a climate of "confidence, joy and freedom," a climate also reflected in the synod's Oct. 13 interim report, known as the relatio, which was heatedly disputed in some circles, Kasper said.
With Pope Francis, the recent, "somewhat pessimistic basic mood in which scandals descended on the church like a form of blight" have given way to a new joy, a spirit of optimism, and a new start, Kasper said.
Even if some of the synod participants were skeptical and were "exercising restraint and pulling their punches in the hope of sitting out this pontificate," Kasper said the "Francis effect" was palpable. For the majority of the synod participants, this pontificate is a "new spring."
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This new spring, however, does not mean satisfying Western expectations of speedy reform, Kasper added. He said it is only possible to do justice to the "Francis phenomenon" by taking a closer look at the paradigm shift the pope has brought about in the light of his theology.
"Pope Francis does not fit into the somewhat hackneyed, progressive-conservative blueprint," Kasper said. There are both traditional elements and elements of the ecclesia semper reformanda -- a church that is always pressing for reform -- in Francis' understanding of the church, he added.
He said Francis is deliberately treading in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, both of whom wanted to interpret the unalterable Gospel message "in the light of the signs of the times." However, Francis "cannot be attributed to any theological school," he said. The pope is a practical man who prefers direct encounters with people and for whom reality takes preference over ideas, he added.
The cardinal then explained how a special Argentine variation of liberation theology based on "the theology of the people," with a particular sensitivity for regional piety and characterized by the concept of reconciliation, had a formative influence on Francis. This has nothing to do with the classical form of liberation theology and its class war ideology, which the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned, Kasper said.
The pope's theology and his vision for the church is centered on the Gospel mandate, the good tidings of a merciful God, and the concept of the People of God, which Vatican II had underlined, Kasper said. Francis outlined much of this in his apostolic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, which was, so to speak, the blueprint of his pontificate. He wanted "the People of God, every single one them, to participate in the church" and for the church to be a "listening church which has an open ear to the People of God," Kasper said.
In the pope's eyes, the Gospel message is also the basis for the "correct understanding of the magisterium" and therefore, church teaching and the Gospel mandate must not be played against one another.
The reform program that Pope Francis has prescribed the church is a long-term program, Kasper said, "a program for a century or more," because it concerns all the dimensions of being a church, "right up to every individual Christian's basic attitude." This means Francis' road map for the future of the church will far exceed his pontificate, Kasper said.
Francis is a "gift of God," Kasper said; the pope’s success, however, will depend on whether it will be possible to maintain his spirit of optimism and a new start in future pontificates.
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]