A New Era for the Church?

Author: Fr Peter Hocken

A New Era for the Church?

Fr Peter Hocken, long time commentator on the work of the Spirit in the Church, sees the year 2013 and the election of Pope Francis, together with that of other Christian leaders also taking up new roles, as being highly significant for the Christian world and an indication of a Kairos moment.

The Year of Faith has proved to be an epic year. The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict, the election of Francis, the first Latin American and the first Jesuit pope, the choice of Justin Welby as the new archbishop of Canterbury, the participation of Patriarch Bartholomew in the installation of Pope Francis, are all signs of major tectonic shifts in the Christian world.

What is the Holy Spirit doing? I suggest that we can see the ministry and priorities of Pope Francis as the launching of a second phase in the renewal of the Catholic Church. The first phase was launched by the Second Vatican Council which freed the Church from its defensive and isolationist postures that were reactions to the Protestant Reformation and to the Enlightenment. The Council laid the foundations for a profound Church renewal, especially rooted in the biblical and liturgical movements of the previous half-century. These foundations made possible a renewed ecclesiology, open to ecumenism, giving full citizenship to the laity and summed up in a theology of communion.

Renouncing the remnants of monarchical symbolism of the papacy

What will be the characteristics of Phase Two? I suggest that we can see the main outlines in the first months of the ministry of Pope Francis. First, he is refusing all the remnants of an imperial or monarchical court – all symbols, emblems, and customs reflecting privilege and superior status, that belong to the world of the emperors and kings of this world, and not to the disciples of the Lord, who emptied himself and took on the form of a slave/servant. This means a simplification of life-style, a love for the poor and the oppressed, a directness of speech, and a dismantling of the culture of secrecy in the running of the Catholic Church. True to the name he has chosen, Pope Francis is refusing the trappings of worldly power and is basing his choices on the gospels as principal source for the disciples of Jesus.

Church teaching has become more strongly Christocentric

During the first phase of renewal, official Church teaching has become more strongly Christocentric, especially under Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. At the Pentecost Vigil for the Ecclesial Movements, Francis was asked, “How can we communicate Faith effectively today?” He began his reply by saying: “I shall answer with just three words. The first: Jesus. What is the most important thing? Jesus. If we forge ahead with our own arrangements, with other things, with beautiful things but without Jesus we make no headway, it does not work. Jesus is more important.” If we want to describe the difference between Benedict XVI and Francis, it is perhaps that Benedict, the great theologian, started from a rich Trinitarian Christocentric synthesis, which is then to be meditated and lived out, while Francis begins from what it means to live as a disciple of the Lord. It is easier for him to do this following the rich heritage of his immediate predecessors. Francis is then applying these gospel standards to the relationship between pope and bishops, between bishops and priests, between the ordained servants and all the people. Customs that get in the way of true Christian relationships are being set aside.

Francis is constantly speaking about the Holy Spirit

Francis is constantly speaking about the Holy Spirit – but in very existential pastoral ways. He emphasizes openness to the Holy Spirit, the danger of resisting the Spirit, and the surprises of the Holy Spirit. He is clearly speaking here not just of our personal lives, but of the life of the Church. On the feast of Pentecost, he challenged his hearers at Mass: “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to “God’s surprises”? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?”

Pope has explicitly rejected the model of priests who say “I am the boss around here.”

Another constant theme of Francis is “walking together” on a journey. This applies at all levels, first within the Catholic Church and then in outward relations. So the pope will walk with the bishops, the bishops walk with the priests and the people, the priests with the people. In speaking to the bishops, Francis does not see the bishops so much over their flocks, but in their midst. He speaks of the bishops being with, being in front of and following the people; front, middle, and rear. “A pastoral presence means walking with the People of God, walking in front of them, showing them the way, showing them the path; walking in their midst, to strengthen them in unity; walking behind them, to make sure no one gets left behind.” He has explicitly rejected the model of priests who say “I am the boss around here.

Francis says that he wants pioneer bishops rather than managers and administrators

“Going out” is another Francis theme alongside “walking with.” Going out to the peripheries and extremities, to the poor and the oppressed. He recognizes going out can lead to accidents, but, he says, he much prefers an accident-prone Church that goes out to one that plays safe. This is an appeal for a quite different style of church leadership. For, to be honest, the training of clergy has long focused on sticking to the well-tried paths, keeping the rules, and not rocking the boat. Francis says openly that he wants pioneer bishops rather than managers and administrators.

Preference for the poor

The preference of Francis for the poor is rooted in his understanding of the Incarnation, that Jesus, being rich, emptied himself and became poor, taking on the form of a slave or servant (2 Cor.8:9; Phil. 2:7). He speaks of serving the suffering as “touching the flesh of Christ.” Here his Christ-centred focus joins up with a vision for a just and human society. He has had harsh words for our “throwaway culture” and for a heartless capitalism that worships the idol of money. Might it happen that Francis will play a role in undermining the present economic system with all its inhumanity and injustice rather as Blessed John Paul II helped to undermine atheistic Communism from within?

The going out and walking with also apply to ecumenical relations. Francis connects very readily with other Christians who manifest an openness to the Holy Spirit and for whom prayer together is very natural. He has had a four hour meeting with Justin Welby, the new leader of the Anglican communion, planning for a joint Catholic – Anglican initiative concerning the poor and the economic system. He is accustomed to pray with Free Church and Pentecostal pastors.

New patterns of ecumenical relations

All this is happening at a time when there is a widespread feeling that the ecumenical movement is tired, has run out of steam, and does not attract the younger generation. The signs are that the Holy Spirit is developing new patterns of ecumenical relations, and that Pope Francis totally fits with and inspires this new pattern rooted in love and deep mutual acceptance, in prayer together and in seeking the Holy Spirit together. This new pattern will not be the preserve of church leaders and theologians, but will involve all Christians. We should be ready for ecumenical break-throughs sparked by common prayer and deep mutual sharing in Christ.

The Jewish people are also fascinated with Pope Francis, as they always pay careful attention to shifts in the Vatican. The Holy Father’s close friendship with Rabbi Abraham Skorka from Buenos Aires, marked by his spending four days at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, will, they hope, lead to a shared trip to Israel. If this happens it will certainly arouse immense interest in the Jewish community. It augurs well for the ongoing task of rooting our Christian theology and understanding more strongly in the Jewish and biblical origins, without which real progress towards unity would be impossible.

Election of new Church leaders over the last twelve months alert us to this being a kairos moment

I have already mentioned the choice of Justin Welby as archbishop of Canterbury. This election together with that of Pope Francis has brought to the leadership of both the Catholic Church and the Anglican communion men who are totally at home with charismatic worship and practice. As many know, the archbishops of Canterbury are traditionally chosen alternately from the Catholic and the Evangelical wings of the Church of England. Archbishop Welby is from the Evangelical wing (Holy Trinity, Brompton before entering theological college), but is the first Evangelical archbishop to have strong Catholic connections and friendships (a Catholic spiritual director, links with Chemin Neuf community, and a familiarity with Catholic social teaching). Many have seen a providential link in the Rome and Canterbury installations being only two days apart. This seems likely to produce from both leaders a greater integration between personal conversion and social transformation.

Several ancient churches also have new leaders in the last twelve months: the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt (Pope Tawadros II), the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Patriarch Mathias), the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch (Patriarch John X, previously Metropolitan in Paris), the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Patriarch Neophyt), the first post-Communist patriarch. This timing is unusual, and alerts us to the present being a kairos moment. Let us commit ourselves to praying regularly for Pope Francis, for Archbishop Welby, and these other new leaders. Those of us blessed to be in the Renewal should know that there is no deep renewal or reform without a spiritual battle. It is our responsibility to pray. Then we will be ready to seize the opportunities the Holy Spirit is opening up.

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