Pope Francis: Reform from Annulments to Zucchettos

At a conference I recently attended, an American cardinal who participated in the conclave that elected Pope Francis explained that he had been truly moved by the whole conclave experience.  And he also said this:  “I do not always understand why Pope Francis does what he does, I cannot always explain him, but, I am firmly convinced that he is God’s choice to lead the Church.  His election was the work of the Spirit, as all papal elections are.”

That about sums up my reactions and sentiments these days as well.  I have told others that living under his reign has been a real journey of faith for me.  And therefore it has been a very good thing.  At the same time, I find him contradictory on many levels.

On one hand he is a remarkably captivating and compelling figure, and it’s clear that he has touched the hearts of countless people around the world with his authenticity and his gestures.  He is joyful, he loves being a priest, and he brings to the papal pulpit a passion for the promotion of the well-being of the least in our midst.   Who can argue with that?

But he is a top-down reformer who claims to reject top-down thinking.  He speaks of local empowerment, but he only consults who he wants to on key issues.  In the name of simplicity he has moved out of the papal apartments, and taken up residence in the guest house, forcing the Vatican security forces to re-think their whole protection plan (spending a bunch of money in the result).   Though he frequently plays the “gentle” card, he is determined to push his agenda on the entire Church, and the entire world for that matter.

So? He’s a pastor.  Sounds like most pastors I know.  Including me.  The fact is that the Church needs a good shake-up from time to time.  Saint John Paul II certainly shook things up when he was elected, and Francis is doing the same.

I guess what I worry about more and more these days would be what myself and others are calling the “Spirit of Francis.” This idea is alive and growing among the press, the general population, the laity, and some of the clergy.  And by it I mean the same thing that the “Spirit of Vatican II” came to mean in the wake of the Council.   The Council documents said what they said.  But in light of its shift in tone, everyone justified all sorts of new ideas and concepts in the name of the Council, when it fact they were not what the Council had said at all.   The “Spirit of Vatican II” was really just a code phrase for license and self-indulgent interpretations.

People hear what they want to hear because it satisfies some need inside of them.  And there is a lot of that going on with Pope Francis right now.  Take for example his recent motu proprio on reforming the annulment process in the Church.  Setting aside, for the moment, what I think of his canonical changes, it is clear that this gesture has played right into the agendas of all the people who are convinced that Catholicism is arcane, and that at long last, we now have a pope who is going to make the Church a friendlier place to be.

What many of these people really want is a drive-thru annulment process because American’s cannot handle waiting.  For anything.   And for many of them it is seductive to think of what might be next-up on their list of things he is going to change that they find backwards.  “Who am I to judge?” is taken to mean that the Church is now fine with gay lifestyles.   His own wording on the absolution of the sin of abortion is taken to mean we are giving women a pass on that issue now whereas before we (apparently) kept them in canonical jail like a bunch of pharisees.

The reality is very different.  Pope Francis has spoken frequently of threats to marriage and family life, he does not think divorce is just fine, and his desires on the absolution front actually have little bearing in the United States and Canada because bishops have been allowing priests to do what he is proposing for years already (which was and is in their canonical rights to do).

The Year of Mercy is coming up.  And as one person already put it very well: “I hope it does not turn into the ‘year of nice.'”   What Pope Francis wants, if one carefully reads his letter from this past April introducing the Year of Mercy, are changed hearts.  That is not the same thing as excuses, or license, or even leniency.   Mercy means that God has been wronged by us and he is choosing to cancel our offenses out of immense love.  But we do need to acknowledge that a wrong has been committed, otherwise, mercy is not going to move us very much.

The truth is that there is no “Spirit of Pope Francis” any more than there is (or ever was) a “Spirit of Vatican II.”   There is only Pope Francis himself.  With all of his twists and turns, gifts and faults.  He wants people to encounter Christ, and to do so through the Church that reaches out to the thirsty world, while never ceasing to engage in fearless self-examination before God of our own faults.

It would be a sad thing, to me, if a whole bunch of people joined (or came back to) the Church thinking that their wayward lifestyles are all fine now because, according to them, the pope said so.  The reality is that he has not said so.

On the other hand, it would be a wonderful thing, and a great act of the Holy Spirit, if a whole bunch of people came back to (or joined) the Church because something about Francis’ spirit of joy and enthusiasm has captivated them in a way that really does bring about a new connection with the Lord.

As for the matter of how much of a true reform we are living through, the jury is still out. It is true that the Church does need reforming, but that is true in every era.  I think for now it is best not to try and guess where our Holy Father is going, or assess his papacy until it is done, lest our own agendas color how we view the present moment.  And besides, it is clear he is not done yet, and hopefully he will not be done for awhile.  He was chosen by God, and he will reign exactly as long as he needs to in the great designs of providence- no more, and no less.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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