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Reforming the Curia is not Pope Francis’s principal task

Change at the Vatican will follow as the Pontiff’s implements his vision of ‘a poor Church for the poor’

By on Thursday, 4 April 2013

Pope Francis greets the Pope Emeritus at Castel Gandolfo (CNS)

Pope Francis greets the Pope Emeritus at Castel Gandolfo (CNS)

The amount of air time and column inches devoted to the need to reform the Roman Curia has been a striking feature of coverage of all things papal these last few weeks. So you might conclude that “running the Vatican” is the Pope’s principal task; but as soon as the thought is expressed that way the hollowness of such a view becomes clear.

The primary task of any Pope is Our Lord’s repeated request to Peter at the end of St John’s Gospel: “Feed my sheep.” The Holy See and its curia are at the service of this ministry, so any reform must come from a vision of how to feed the Church and the world.

In Pope Francis, we are truly blessed in having a man of God who has been able to articulate such a vision with remarkable speed and clarity, drawing on his own life as archbishop of a city dominated by poverty and on his own formation within the Society of Jesus, with its longstanding commitment to justice. Not only does Pope Francis have a vision but he has a memorable way of expressing it: “a poor Church for the poor”. This is not a secular vision but one founded upon the Church as the bride of Christ, a doctrine he emphasised in his first homily as Pope: “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord.”

So with this vision that is at once new and old, Pope Francis will now bring his own style of leadership to the Petrine ministry. Much has already been made of the contrast with Pope Benedict’s style; this is helpful in so far as it highlights new energy but misguided if it becomes a criticism of his predecessor. But it’s worth noting in passing that certain stylistic features are having too much meaning read into them: shoes, capes and chairs, for example. These are simply part of the range of items at a pope’s disposal in how he presents himself, setting a tone rather than dealing with substance. Each pope quite rightly inhabits these Roman cultural items in his own way without detracting from the unchanging nature of the Petrine ministry. As Pope Francis said in his address to the press: “Christ remains the centre, not the Successor of Peter … Without him, Peter and the Church would not exist or have reason to exist.”

So how will Christ be at the centre for Pope Francis? The classic theological description of Christ is Prophet, Priest and King. While all these three aspects of Christ’s life will be present in a papacy, one usually emerges as dominant.

In Blessed John Paul II’s ministry, the prophetic element was to the fore. The Christ whom he preached literally made nations tremble and empires crumble. Similarly, in his final illness he offered us Christ crucified as a prophetic challenge and as an affirmation of the culture of life. Turning to Pope Benedict, we see a papacy characterised strongly by Christ the High Priest. In his emphasis on greater dignity in the liturgy, combined with his outstanding sermons and speeches on a wide variety of themes, Pope Benedict presented in his ministry Christ as priest and, derived from that, Christ as teacher.

So is it too neat to think that the new Pope’s emphasis will be Christ the King? At first sight, this seems unlikely for a Pope who wants to highlight poverty and simplicity. But think again: an ideal king is a leader who cares for all his subjects, showing special concern for their material needs and protecting the weak from the tyranny of the strong. Christ as King, not of pomp, but of justice, does seem to be the aspect of Christ that Pope Francis is already emphasising. Yet the term “King” is problematic today and “President” is no better, so is there an image of modern political leadership that can express this kingly dimension of Christ and the Petrine ministry? St Augustine compared the Church to a city and so it may just work to see the Pope as mayor of that city. The priorities of a mayor (the new Pope) are the well-being of citizens, especially the poorest, and the quality of the environment. To translate these concerns into action, he needs a well run city hall (the curia) and effective borough councils (local conferences of bishops). He will also seek the cooperation of those from other cities (other religious communities) and of foreigners (those of no faith).

Pope Francis has already reached out to all these groups by name in the first 10 days of his pontificate. He wants to work with the cardinals who elected him, to build a relationship with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and to work with the media to whom he gave his first papal audience. Accompanying all this is his irrepressible urge to reach out to ordinary people, the citizens for whom he is working. The distinguishing character of a Petrine “mayor” is that he believes the earthly city (even the Eternal City of Rome) must be subject to the heavenly city. I believe that we can already see his way of achieving this taking shape in the mind of Pope Francis. So a joyful prospect is opening up for the Church, a trio of great popes, each of whom has inhabited the Petrine ministry in their own way, each emphasising a different aspect of Christ our Prophet, our Priest and our King.

Fr Christopher Jamison OSB is director of the National Office for Vocation

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, March 29 2013