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Pope Francis must inspire Catholics to stop ‘biting and devouring’ one another

He must remind us that faction and partisanship are the enemies of truth as well as charity

By on Friday, 22 March 2013

Pope Francis greets parishioners outside Sant'Anna church (CNS)

Pope Francis greets parishioners outside Sant'Anna church (CNS)

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped out for the first time on to the central loggia of St Peter’s Basilica, his face told us that he was at least as shocked as the prognosticators who had failed to predict his election. The delayed reaction of the crowd reflected his status as a relative unknown. His informal greeting and address seemed naïve, as well as winning, but gave little hint of his thoughts on the many and urgent problems confronting the worldwide flock he now leads.

The new Pope seemed daunted by the enormity of his task. And well he might be, given not only the momentous nature of the problems he faces, but the conflicting expectations and even demands which are presented to him both inside and outside the Church.

If we look first at the needs of the Church in the developed world it is clear that the new Pope faces a crisis of historic proportions. Churches are being sold for lack of clergy to man them and faithful to fill them. The older generations watch in impotent sorrow as their children desert the Church in droves, and ask themselves why they have failed to pass on the Faith. Exposure of misdeeds among the clergy has wounded fatefully the credibility of the institution. Both inside and outside the Church people ask themselves how men who have dedicated themselves to God can sink so low as to defile the innocence of children, and how their superiors can betray their trust by systematic failure to punish the guilty and protect the victims – or even to listen to them. Up to the highest echelons of the hierarchy, undisguised infighting leads to betrayal of secrets, exposing as empty rhetoric all the talk of authority as a form of service. Energetic action must be taken to enforce discipline, and especially to deal effectively with abusers. That the Roman Curia must be reformed is obvious to all except – apparently – the Roman Curia. Only reform at the top can restore confidence so that clergy and laity may collaborate fruitfully in the task of re-evangelising the cynical and disaffected societies of the West.

As if these problems were not enough, Catholics in the developed world are divided as perhaps never before. Francis must be a Pope of reconciliation. There are reasons to believe that he was as elected as a result of a deadlock in the conclave, and that he emerged as a reconciling force. We identify ourselves as conservative or progressive, traditionalist or liberal, and are quick to attack and mock those who do not share our views. As Pope Benedict noted with sadness over the Williamson affair, we “bite and devour one another” with alacrity. The new Pope must teach in a manner which enables Catholics of different sensibilities and spiritualities to listen and talk to one another. He must remind us that faction and partisanship are the enemies of truth, as well as charity, and to judge each issue on its merits and not react reflexively on the basis of some label we have learned to attach to ourselves. He can and must teach us that true unity requires that the truth be expressed in today’s world through a diversity of expressions which are mutually enriching, as long as there is true unity in the essentials of faith.

In the matter of the liturgy, the need for reconciliation is particularly evident. The sacrament of unity has become the focus of strife. Francis has shown that he is not of the same sensibility as his predecessor, to the fury of some and the glee of others. On the internet they bite and devour, not only each other but whichever of the two living successors of St Peter they find uncongenial. We must regret the spiritual immaturity which howls recriminations when it does not get its way. The Pope is, surely, simply being himself rather than deliberately repudiating his predecessor’s legacy. He is, no doubt, aware of the dangers of allowing himself to be presented as an “anti-Benedict”. He should also look for opportunities to show the more traditional members of his flock that he loves them too with a fatherly care.

But we in the West need to remember that for the vast majority of the world’s Catholics, the main priority is not how many candles there should be on the altar, nor even truly serious issues like protecting children and using the gifts of women, but simply the daily challenge of survival. The Church’s role in combating poverty and injustice lies, rightly, at the heart of his concerns. This was most surely the major reason for his election, and was signaled powerfully as soon as the world learned the name he had chosen.

Pope Francis is leader of a Church whose universality obliges it to be ever reaching outwards. There are already promising signs that Francis is re-launching the stalled process of ecumenism by combining an unselfconscious commitment to the truth of the Catholic faith with a humility which attracts by refusing all triumphalism. His clear preference for the title of Bishop of Rome, and the presence at his installation of the Patriarch of Constantinople, for the first time since the 1,000-year-old schism between East and West, are of enormous significance here.

Perhaps, most of all, Francis knows that he must reach out to a non-believing world which views the Church with indifference at best, and at worst hostility. The media and secular society at large give the impression that it is in the matter of sexual morality that the Church’s credibility stands or falls. Francis has already shown that he sees the main mission of the Church not as propagating a certain view of sexuality, but of proclaiming Jesus Christ and his love for humanity. He is unlikely to satisfy those who want him to turn his back on the Church’s constant teaching, but he has already spoken in such a way as to show that mercy, and not implacable justice, is at the heart of God’s law.

Often we win people for Christ not by the arguments we present them with, but by the love we show them. On Saturday Francis met the press, often seen as the Church’s most ferocious critics. He did not chide them. He thanked them for their hard work. He told them he loved them. Perhaps it will be by touching hearts that he shows the world the true face of Christ and his Church.

Fr Mark Drew is a priest currently working in the Archdiocese of Liverpool. He has studied and ministered in Rome, France and Greece. He is a researcher specialising in theological dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches