Not wanting to sound like a broken record, but it’s Evangelii Gaudium, stupid!
The 2013 apostolic exhortation, better known as “The Joy of the Gospel” in English, is Pope Francis’s most important document and his blueprint for reforming the Church. Readers of this column are probably sick of hearing about it. But it's been a full two years after the document’s publication and there are still too many Catholics that have never picked up this remarkable text or have only browsed through it quickly and superficially.
No one is more aware of that than the man who wrote it.
And that’s why this week he instructed delegates at a once-every-ten-years summit of the Catholic Church in Italy to undertake a more profound study of the exhortation and make it the catalyst for much needed change and renewal.
“Over the next several years… in every community, in every parish and institution, in every diocese and ecclesiastical circumscription and in every region try to begin—in a synodal way—a deeper reflection on Evangelii Gaudium, in order to draw practical criteria from it and implement its provisions,” Francis said Tuesday in Florence, the magnificent Tuscan city where bishops, consecrated religious, and lay leaders gathered for the huge conference.
The Pope’s nearly 50-minute-long talk—which was interrupted several times by loud applause—is sure to rank among his major vision-setting addresses on church reform. It’s a shame that the Vatican is so slow at producing reliable translations of his discourses in other languages, because this address is applicable to the entire Church. In fact, Francis’s speech was a further elaboration of several points he made in the apostolic exhortation.
Many of the lines drew ovations, such as this one: “Before the ills or problems of the Church, it’s useless to look for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of outmoded practices or forms that don’t even have a cultural significance.”
The conference applauded enthusiastically again when Francis told the bishops he wants them simply to be pastors. “Nothing more than this—pastors,” he said. The delegates showed their approval again when the pope said, “Wherever you are, never put up walls or borders, but piazzas and field hospitals.”
He also enunciated the following line, putting deliberate emphasis on the last word: “Be well aware that the Lord shed his blood not for some, not for many, but for all!” This, too, drew a thunderous applause. And it’s no wonder. The current Roman Missal has not yet been translated into Italian.
As far as one can tell, Pope Francis’s popularity among the Catholic people is showing no signs of waning. And he’s obviously well aware of it. This past Sunday he basically appealed to thousands of folks in St. Peter’s Square (and beyond) to help him reform the church.
“I know that many of you are upset by reports the past several days about confidential documents of the Holy See that were stolen and published,” he said at the noontime Angelus. He was speaking about contents of two recent scandal books depicting financial corruption inside the Vatican.
“I want to assure you that this sad event will certainly not deter me from the work of reform that we are pursuing with my collaborators and the support of all of you,” he added. Popes in the past have usually stayed above the fray and avoided speaking publicly about such scandals, allowing their press spokesman to do the damage control.
Not Francis. He wants it all out there in the open. In a sense, he has once more taken his case to the people. Some have criticized him for this, calling him a “populist pope” in the style of the strongman government that years ago ruled his native Argentina.
Do we have a “Papa Perón?" At least one man in Francis’s Council of Cardinals (C-9) sure thinks so. Use your imagination to figure out which one. But even if the people are supportive of the Pope’s radically evangelical vision for transforming the church, such reform will be difficult if he does not also have greater support from the bishops—especially those in key posts.
There are signs that Francis, who will be seventy-nine in just over a month, is beginning to move more decisively to make that happen. In the last several days he named men considered fully in line with his open-minded and pastorally creative thinking to head up the archdioceses of Mechelen-Brussels and Barcelona. In both places the archbishop has usually been a cardinal.
He’s named a number of similar appointments to smaller dioceses in different parts of the world. The case of Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is particularly interesting. He was supposed to be named pastor of Belgian’s primatial see back in 2010, being the unrivaled, top recommendation of the nuncio at the time. But Benedict XVI chose the traditionalist Archbishop André Léonard instead.
Even though the Belgian was still only seventy-four and his predecessor—Cardinal Godfried Danneels—was already past eighty at the time of February’s consistory, Francis denied Léonard the red hat. Instead, he gave it to that former nuncio to Belgium, now-Cardinal Karl Rauber. De Kesel’s appointment was further vindication for Rauber and for Cardinal Danneels, who saw his former auxiliary and protégé succeed him in Mechelen-Brussels.
There are currently fourteen cardinals over the age of seventy-five who are still heading dioceses around the world, but they usually stay on some years more, especially if they have the current pontiff’s trust.
However, in three such places—Mainz (Germany), Havana, and Santo Domingo—the cardinals turn eighty next year.
In the United States there are no really major sees that will need new bishops. Currently, only seven dioceses and the miniscule Archdiocese of Anchorage (Alaska) are led by someone who is seventy-five or older.
Archbishop Blaise Cupich of Chicago is the United States’ leading “liberal” bishop. Of course, this is patently false.
But it is the common narrative that many in the media have been perpetuating ever since Pope Francis named the Nebraska-native to head the church in the Windy City just over a year ago.
Certainly, Archbishop Cupich is the pope’s most prominent American appointment so far. He heads one of the few metropolitan archdioceses that Benedict XVI did not fill with his own men during his nearly eight years as pope. And one has the sense that, in this important post, he is consciously trying to play the role of “Francis’s Man in America.”
It seems that whenever the pope makes a statement of some major significance, Chicago’s archbishop is the first in the U.S. hierarchy to repeat it and give prominence to it. Fans of Pope Francis must be absolutely delighted.
But there is something about all this that is reminiscent of the old days under John Paul II when so many bishops pumped up the papal personality cult. It was, in fact, during the saint’s pontificate that Cupich, not yet a bishop, served as secretary of the apostolic nunciature in Washington. That was between 1981 and 1987, when the future Cardinal Pio Laghi was the papal nuncio. A couple years later Cupich became the rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum, an institution immediately subject to the Holy See through the nuncio (still Laghi at that time).
There is much to like and admire about Archbishop Cupich, but he should not be confused with being a liberal or a progressive. Thankfully, he’s not a cultural warrior, either. But is he really a so-called “Francis bishop,” as so many say? One could probably make a pretty good case to show that he’s actually more of a “JPII bishop.”
By trying too hard to be the former—as he seems to do at times—he comes out looking much more like the latter. How else does one explain his recent decision to name a new high school in Chicago after Pope Francis? That seems a rather pharaonic thing to do for a pope that refers to himself as “padre,” shuns the trappings of the monarchical papacy, and is more comfortable eating in a soup kitchen than being showered with honors.