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Sunday, June 1, 2014, 00:01 by

Fr Alfred Micallef

Pope Francis is insisting that the Church should be simple, outgoing and concerned with the poor; and that its ministry should be more concerned with compassion than with condemning.

Pope Francis is insisting that the Church should be simple, outgoing and concerned with the poor; and that its ministry should be more concerned with compassion than with condemning.

By choosing the name Francis upon being elected Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio communicated the message that simplicity and frugality were his vision for the Church whose shepherd he had become.

However, another episode from St Francis’ life may have also been in the Pope’s mind. Once, St Francis had heard a voice telling him: ‘Repair my Church’. St Francis’s first thought went to the dilapidated chapel of St Damian. Later, he understood that his mission was to repair the Church with a capital ‘C’. One wonders whether this episode too was floating in Bergoglio’s mind.

Pope Francis has been insisting on two profound reforms: the Church should be simple, outgoing and concerned with the poor; and the Church’s ministry should be more concerned with compassion than with condemning and with being overly preoccupied with orthodoxy.

For us too, a profound and joyful experience of Christ’s salvation needs to come first

At the end of Vatican II in the mid-1960s, there was great vitality and high hopes for the future. New movements mushroomed and most were animated by lay Christians. Catholics enjoyed the celebration of the Eucharist which they could now follow in their own language and they stopped saying their rosaries during Mass.

Then, little by little, the enthusiasm began to wear off. The post-war affluence made people more materialistic, individualistic, seeking immediate gratification. However, by itself, this does not wholly explain why people began to distance themselves from the Church.

Soon after the Council, theologians started to tap new frontiers. New theologies were cropping up such as Liberation Theology, Feminine Theology, Black Theology and the relationship between Christianity and other religions. All this being so new it is possible that occasionally someone may have crossed the line.

Since the 1980s, the tendency has been for Church authorities to apply the brakes. Strict control became the order of the day; centralisation replaced the budding collegiality; insistence on uniformity of theological expression left no room for a faithful but creative reinterpretation of tradition. The baby may have been thrown out with the bath water.

Moreover, the Church’s message – at least the one taken up most by the media – became mostly on sexual and medical morality. As Thomas Reese of the National Catholic Reporter put it, to the question, ‘What is the Catholic Church all about? What does the Pope stand for?’ the response would be: ‘They are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control’.

“Now this has changed,” Reese continues, “today, the response would be different. Pope Francis insists on compassion, love, especially love of the poor.”

Pope Francis has rebranded Catholicism. He wants a more pastorally oriented Church. He will not change the Church’s moral doctrine but he does not forget to preach the good news and the joy it brings with it. At Mount Sinai, experience of God preceded the Ten Commandments. For us too, a profound and joyful experience of Christ’s salvation needs to come first.

Pope Francis’s other huge project is to make the Church simple. He has no patience for those who are more interested in making a career seeking titles rather than in being servants of the Gospel. Very bluntly he forbade the honorific title ‘Monsignor’ to anybody under 65, and wants anybody more interested in moving up the hierarchical ladder rather than in being a true shepherd to the flock to be excluded from even being considered for the position of bishop.

The Pope wants to inculcate in Church ministers’ hearts this spirit of service and simplicity. How wonderful it would be if those who had received titles before the Pope’s directive were to renounce them and the paraphernalia that goes with them!

Francis is leading by example, as everybody is witnessing. Using simple language he is focussing on mercy and forgiveness and continuously warns against clericalism, careerism and materialism among priests.

The response of many Catholics and others to his message has been extremely positive. This reform will be successful if the ministers of the Gospel follow the Pope’s lead and walk the same walk he is walking. To a great extent, the ball is in their court.

alfred.j.micallef@um.edu.mt

Fr Alfred Micallef is a member of the Society of Jesus.