John Littleton and Eamon Maher (editors), The Francis Factor, A New Departure, Columba

The Francis factor Book cover

The election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy is indeed a most significant new chapter in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has been called from the ends of the earth to minister to God’s Catholic people and to God’s people not of the Roman tradition or faith. He is the first non-European in more than a thousand years. He is a Vatican outsider. He is the first Pope to have been ordained priest after Vatican Council II. He is the first Pope in a very long time to have had pastoral on-the-ground experience. In an early interview he said, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”
Francis is just over a year into his ministry. The book under review is a compilation of articles by journalists, pastors, theologians from the English-speaking world, on Francis’s first year. One can glean from a first reading that Francis’s pastoral programme is based on a renewed option for the poor, an unfamiliar reluctance to pass moral judgments on others, distaste for legalism, openness to consultation and a distrust of monolithic institutions. The writers agree that he really believes what he is saying.
It is early days yet but it does seem that he is moving towards bringing to practicality what he has been signalling. He does want to be nearer to the people. His residing in Santa Marta in the midst of its community is indicative of that. (Indeed he received Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh for tea in Santa Marta and she did not wear the traditional black.)He is serious about reforming the Institute of Religious Works which has been a blight on the apostolic mission. He has recently formed a Commission to work at the issue of clerical abuse of minors, though voices have been raised warning of failure waiting to happen. The big question is: can Francis rebuild the church?
Virtually all of the writers think that he can, barring ill health or early death. Or if not, to leave in place the mechanisms whereby a reform can be ongoing along with a change in culture which will underpin a new way of doing things. It is an enormous task which will demand great amounts of human and spiritual resources.
The Pope wants the mission and concern of the Church to be centred on the poor. For him the poor are not merely the objects of the church’s charity. They are the subject of their own lives and history. According to Mary T. Malone the Pope has said some definitive ‘No’s’. He has said No to the exclusion of the poor from church and society; No to greed and consumerism; No to neo-liberal capitalism; No to machismo and violence against women.
But he has also said No to women’s ordination. Paradoxically, their exclusion from ministry is a form of violence. Malone hopes that the Pope’s call for a new theology of women might be a way of broaching the issue once again. She dismisses the wishy-washy, rhapsodic reflections of John Paul II along with his ‘new feminism’ based on an “ontological complementarity” which in effect silences and segregates women. Catholic theology has excluded from its reflection the human experience of birthing, nurturing a child and feeding it from one’s own body. Men cannot imagine it. This is why their praise of Mary Mother of Jesus so often makes of her a saccharine sister and marzipan madonna instead of the menstruating mum she was.
Fr Brian D’Arcy has written a valuable piece in that he talks about how he has suffered at the hands of a dysfunctional church and corrupt episcopal clergy. He points to aspects of the Church’s life which will challenge Francis’s ministry. Some of these are: a dysfunctional and aloof Curia; a sclerotic model of governance which must become Collegial; creeping infallibility whereby certain teachings are given infallible status without having been submitted to the discernment of the People of God, e.g. Christ does not want women priests; the marginalisation of LGBT persons as objects of ministry rather than subjects of life and ministry in the Church; the poor as central to the Church’s identity; mission of the church for the life of the world: we are not here to convert the world, rather to change it.
The last point receives certain confirmation in Brendan Leahy’s article when he cites a letter written by Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist, reflecting on a letter written to him by Pope Francis: “An openness so broad to modern and secular culture, such a profound vision of conscience and its autonomy has never been experienced up to now from the chair of St Peter….”
Leahy goes on to write of an agenda which the Pope has taken on as his own. Its most salient points are: formation. The Pope encourages us to revise and refurbish the structures of formation for clergy and laity. Secondly, collegiality and solidarity: he wants a renewed effort to put in place Vatican II’s project of a collegial model of governance; and solidarity, to be close to the people, to listen and be concerned. Thirdly, the Church should be in a permanent state of Mission, journeying in uprootedness, proclaiming the Reign of God, not of the Church. The Church is in the world for the light and life of the world, in Dialogue with all faiths in search of the Good. Lastly, the Church is part of society. It should be involved in constructing the common good, in incarnating its faith values, proposing not imposing, with a respect and critique of the secular.
The English theologian Tina Beattie begins her reflection by quoting Pope Francis as saying, “the Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.” He cuts to the core when he says, “the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives” (Evangelii Gaudium, 83). We are a Church of sinners and we smell of being lost sheep. Francis wants a Church whose apostles, lay and clerical, know their world, love it and bless it.
Pope Francis’s coming has caused a lot of excitement and expectation—maybe too much. He is not a superman and I suspect that some corrupt practices may escape his reform agenda. The dry rot is deeply embedded and corruption widespread. Cultural change takes generations. In any case we have a Pope in the mould of John XXIII. There are enormous challenges, enormous opportunities and enormous obstacles. This book is a rich compilation of what being Church nowadays means. We have a potentially great leader. The question for us is: will we deserve him?

Frank Regan

John Littleton and Eamon Maher (editors), The Francis Factor, A New Departure, Columba, 2014, £12.50