In the face of terrorism and a third world war being waged piecemeal around the globe, Pope Francis believes it’s high time we drop the bomb—of mercy. “In a world lacerated by violence this is the right moment to launch a mercy offensive,” says Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s Secretary of State.

The priest-diplomat this week told the French Catholic daily, La Croix, that Francis wants the upcoming Jubilee of Mercy to be a catalyst for people “to meet and understand each other and to overcome hatred.” He said the Pope is intent that Muslims also take part in the Church’s Jubilee Year, especially because mercy is their “most beautiful name for God.”

Francis will officially commence the yearlong observance on December when he opens the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica. The commemoration is scheduled to run through November 2016.

But some church and civic leaders in Rome have urged the Pope to postpone the Jubilee or cancel it altogether. They’re concerned that an upsurge in terrorist activities, evidenced by last Friday’s vicious attacks in Paris, will jeopardize the safety of pilgrims coming to Rome.

It’s not popular to speak about it, but many people here believe it is not a matter of “if”, but “when” terrorists will attack the Eternal City, the historic symbol of the Western world that ISIS fanatics say they wish to destroy. But Francis, who will turn 79 on December 17, has shown no visible signs of fear. Indeed, for him it’s has been business as usual.

For example, on Wednesday he moved through a crowded St Peter’s Square in an open-air jeep and occasionally on foot for about fifteen minutes before beginning his weekly general audience. Then he told the tens of thousands of people in the square that more important than the Holy Doors at various churches around the world is the “door of God’s mercy, generously open for all.”

Yes, business as usual. Next Wednesday the Pope is scheduled to begin a six-day trip to Africa, again despite the security fears of some of his aides. The trickiest and still uncertain leg of the visit, which includes Kenya and Uganda, is the war-engulfed Central African Republic.

As for now, the itinerary remains intact, though that could change at any moment. One thing that is not likely to change is Pope Francis’s conviction that he must continue moving forward, fearlessly, with his program of reforming the church and promoting peace throughout the world.

****

Papa Francesco went to Rome’s principal Lutheran church on Sunday just as his Bavarian predecessor did in 2010 and the sainted Pole before him in 1983. But some über-Catholics saw the Latin American pope’s visit, in contrast to those previous occasions, as highly controversial.

Why? Because the gift (or gastgeschenk) he took to the Lutheran pastor was—now, don’t be scandalized—a chalice. Yes, a chalice used for celebrating the Eucharist. But that wasn’t the worst.

Those who evidently think they are more Roman than the pope were most shocked—in the words of one of them—by Francis “appearing to suggest that a Lutheran wife of a Catholic husband could receive holy communion based on the fact that she is baptized and in accordance with her conscience.”

Obviously the author meant communion confected by a Catholic priest. Here we go again, said another self-styled defender of orthodoxy, the pope is causing confusion.

After some preliminary thoughts Francis said:

As to your question, I will just respond with a question: how can I do (this) with my husband, so the Supper of the Lord can accompany on my journey? This is a problem to which each person must respond.

But a friend who’s a pastor told me: ‘We believe the Lord is present there. He’s present. You believe the Lord is present. What’s the difference?’ – ‘Eh, there are explanations and interpretations…’ Life is greater than explanations and interpretations.

Always make reference to baptism: ‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ as St Paul tells us, and draw the consequences from that. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it’s not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak to the Lord and go forward. I dare say no more.

Still confused?

****

What would a healthy “decentralization” of the church, which the pope is trying to bring about, actually look like?

Reactions to the U.S. bishops’ deliberations this week at their fall meeting suggest that Catholics may have drawn the conclusion, unwittingly, that decentralization may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Those who are encouraged by Pope Francis’s emphasis on making the Church less judgmental or confrontational and more open to dialogue with the world will be deeply disappointed that so many bishops seem slow to follow his lead.

But if we take him at his word, Francis does not believe “that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world”. 

In his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he writes: “It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’”

The fact is, local bishops do not work for the pope. They are not his representatives or errand boys. The Bishop of Rome is not the CEO of a multinational and the bishops are not branch managers.

Unfortunately, in the past, too many popes and too many bishops acted for too long as if this were actually the case. Reform-minded Catholics were among the most vocal critics of this modus operandi in previous pontificates. But oddly, now that there is a pope to their liking (and what’s not to like?), many of them want every bishop around the world to suddenly act like him, have the same priorities as him, and draw the same conclusions as him.

This is not a requirement for remaining in communion with the Bishop of Rome! And that’s actually a good thing, for it helps to safeguard the “reconciled diversity” or “unity in diversity” that Pope Francis, also very wisely, is trying to promote. Still, it can be discouraging.

Buckle up, folks, it is going to be a rough and rocky road to healthy decentralization in the Catholic Church. It’s not likely to happen until the synodality that Francis is trying to instill in the church’s way of living and being also embraces and transforms the way bishops are selected.

Even if a change in the discernment process for choosing our pastors were to be implemented in the next couple of years, it would probably take at least two more generations before we’d get an episcopate that would make decentralized government effective.

Having said that, there are some men in miters—even those with the august rank of cardinal—who should be doing everything as the pope wishes, both in style and emphasis. And they actually do work for him. They are called apostolic delegates and Vatican officials.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

Also by this author
Letter from Rome

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