An article by Fr Dwight Longenecker in Alateia for February 17 asks: “Will Pope Francis be able to reform the Church?” I usually avoid questions like this because I don’t want to read any more about political factions and cabals in the Vatican. However, I was curious as to what he would say. After pointing out how difficult it is to make changes to any institution, even at a parish level, Longenecker makes the important and wise point: “The Bishop of Rome works as our pastor, not as our boss. His real task is not to reform the systems and infrastructure but to bring the fire of the Holy Spirit into our lives to purify the flock from the inside out.” He goes on to say, “What is required is not simply reform, but renewal. Only when the faithful’s hearts burn with the fire of Divine Love will we see true reform. Only when individuals… are renewed in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit will we see the Church complete her real mission.”
Longenecker concludes, “Pope Francis and his team of eight cardinals will be successful as they are faithful to their calling as pastors and apostles. Only with a continued reliance on the power of Pentecost can they lead the Catholic Church to the renewal and reform required to convert the world.”
For some reason, I was very buoyed up by reading this. So often we look at the Church as an “infrastructure” or as “institution” – and then the problems besetting it seem insurmountable. It also means we focus on “problems” rather than on what really matters: purification “from the inside out”. In this respect, we often forget completely the action of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity – the Holy Spirit. Without the constant, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit we are lost, both individually and as a Church. The saints have always known this and they are the people who, throughout history, have actually renewed the Church. The solution is simple; if we want renewal we must follow the example of the saints: their patience, their courage, their faith – and their fidelity to Church teaching.
Then I read Benedict Brogan’s interview with Cardinal-elect Vincent Nichols in Saturday’s Telegraph. Nichols has been making headlines by drawing attention to the plight of the poor in this country. I don’t doubt that many people are struggling to make ends meet. But the Coalition is surely right to try to end a different kind of poverty: the hopelessness of welfare dependency and the culture of apathy where it makes more economic sense to live off the state than to work. It must also be said that this is a non-controversial subject; we all agree that poverty is bad – we just differ on how best to solve it. So Nichols comes over as a traditionally Labour-leaning member of the hierarchy, rather than being at the centre of a firestorm, as he would be if he said anything remotely like what Archbishop Kaigama of Jos is quoted as saying in my blog on Monday.
According to the Brogan article, Nichols believes that his appointment “is a rallying cry to his Church”: “Let us be confidently Catholic”, he states. But what does Nichols mean by this – apart from more charitable giving and (possibly) more frugal living? To be “confidently Catholic” in a secular, post-Christian state is not easy; it is to invite incredulity, anger and contempt. Apart from fidelity to the Sacraments, it means to proclaim the fullness of the Catholic faith: this includes marriage as defined between a man and a woman; acceptance of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical on married life; protection of the unborn and those in danger of euthanasia; rejection of IVF biotechnology; defending the right of adoptive children to a father and a mother. To stand up confidently for these beliefs in the public arena is much tougher than simply drawing attention to the poor, the evils of capitalism and to greedy bankers.