Pope Francis has just made two significant appointments to senior dioceses in Italy. Matteo Zuppi was deeply involved at the coalface of poverty in his diocese and was appointed archbishop of Bologna. Corrado Lorefice, a parish priest who opposed the mafia, was appointed archbishop of Palermo. The appointments, like that of Blasé Cupich to Chicago last year, are regarded as the result of direct interventions by the pope. They are ‘Francis bishops’.
What Pope Francis is doing is pointing a way forward for the Church, specifying the Vatican Two route. That’s what he did too in the recent synod on the family in Rome. He was like a steward at a car rally, standing at a cross-roads, frantically waving the traffic in one particular direction.
What was important in the synod wasn’t the distance covered but getting on the right road. Effectively it marked an end to the rigidity of the John Paul II/Benedict years and the adoption of a new way of being church. The synod, the prestigious paper, the Tablet commented, was ‘a snapshot of a Church in transition’.
While some lament the fact that more progress wasn’t made, on particular issues, the studied ambiguity of the final document delivered the necessary two-thirds majority and handed the decisions over to the pope, decisions awaited with great interest.
Francis has a problem, however, with those who might be drivers of the new reform. The Church is packed with John Paul and Benedict appointed bishops, most of them more comfortable with the rigid ethos of those four decades than the Vatican Two Church that Francis is sponsoring. So the more bishops’ conferences and Curia congregations in Rome are filled with Francis’ people the more progress Francis will make.
It won’t be easy. In Ireland, for instance, since Francis became pope there’s no sign of a ‘Francis bishop’ being appointed. Even though there’re plenty to fit that profile, none has been appointed, probably because those doing the appointing have no appetite for the direction Francis is taking.
Worse still, at a time of huge crisis for the Church in Ireland, when all the graphs are going in the wrong direction, there’s no bishop with the vision, creativity or courage to take advantage of the Francis tide. Instead what we get is a fall-back position – neutralize criticism by dismissing it as negative or undermine those who name uncomfortable truths.
There’s also the difficult truth that if a team manager insists on picking a retinue of safe corner-backs in order to defend the goal at all costs, no one should be surprised if there’s no full-forward to score at the other end or that inevitably own-goals are conceded.
Recently, Michael Neary, archbishop of Tuam, in speaking to World Priest, dismissed talk about a crisis in priesthood, as ‘a rather simplistic view of the situation. The real crisis is a crisis of faith’. He proposed the idea that fear is part of the problem. ‘Fear causes us to recoil, to become stagnant. Faith by contrast enables us to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
The archbishop is, in a sense, both spectacularly wrong and, at the same time, unintentionally gets it nearly exactly right.
A few questions. Why do bishops keep inferring that there’s no crisis in priesthood, when all the indicators comprehensively indicate the opposite? Is it that bishops are simply in denial of the stark reality, and couch their denial in a flawed optimism or seek to camouflage it with pious words? Or that they keep denying the reality in order to convince themselves that they might be right? Or that they’re hopelessly out of touch with the lives their priests lead and what Catholics in the pew think and feel?
At the same time the archbishop is almost right. Fear is a debilitating condition, especially in bishops, who are expected to lead the Church. ‘Fear causes us to recoil, to become stagnant . . . Faith by contrast enables us to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
But it’s not the Francis people or the critical commentators who are fearful or who won’t take risks. And the crisis in the Catholic priesthood is directly related to the refusal of bishops to do just that – ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’ – what, in effect, Pope Francis is hoping for.
A priest-friend of mine, in his 60s, had five (yes, five!) funerals in his far-flung parish last week. Imagine. It’s not just unfair or bizarre, it’s clearly unsustainable. Spool the next decade or so forward, and where are we? Unless, of course, those in positions to make the decisions, make the decisions.
The problem for Pope Francis and for the Catholic Church is that among the bishops there’s so much resistance to making decisions that simply need to be made. To paraphrase Archbishop Neary: ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
Take what Archbishop Neary has to say about celibacy: ‘the celibate life lived honestly is liberating and edifying’. But nobody is arguing the opposite. Nobody is suggesting that celibacy for priests should be abolished. Or that marriage for priests should be compulsory, the Lord be between us and all harm!
What’s being suggested (and what the dogs in the streets can see is necessary) is that celibate priesthood and a married priesthood can exist side by side, will have to exist side by side if people in hundreds of parishes in Ireland are to have Mass. And what needs to be suggested very forcefully to the Irish bishops is the corollary that those who refuse to name that obvious truth (that is, the Irish bishops) are effectively preventing Catholics in parishes all over Ireland from celebrating the Eucharist – in a decade or more time. Possibly it might be said from fear and that what bishops seem to need, in the archbishop’s words, is faith: ‘to take risks, to go forward, to face the future courageously’.
Which is why I wish, I long for, I pray for ‘Francis bishops’ who will pay attention to the flag Francis is waving, who will generate the vision, the creativity and the commitment to take the road that God’s Spirit pointed out to our Church over 50 years ago in the Second Vatican Council. Why? Because bishops need to facilitate that change of direction which so many in our Church long for so desperately. And if they don’t, history won’t treat them kindly.
Saying ‘It will do in my time’ is no excuse.
Fr Brendan Hoban; Western People; 9 November 2015