Pope Francis is doing his very best, but he’s still not been able to fully dismantle the Vatican court. A quick glance at a photo of the pre-Christmas gathering he had on Monday with top officials of the Roman Curia will tell you that. Just take a look at the seating arrangement inside that ornate hall and notice what all those in attendance are wearing.
Signs and symbols mean everything in the Catholic Church. But there’s no need for a degree in symbolism for this one. Even a kindergartner would tell you that this particular image speaks of monarchical rule rather than servant-leadership.
Don’t blame Francis. He’s trying to change this mentality, even if he has kept his hands off the royal (that is, papal) household’s dress code and most of its renaissance protocol.
Instead, he’s tried to lead by example in other areas.
For instance, he’s chosen to live in community at the Vatican’s main clergy residence (Casa Santa Marta) rather than in pampered isolation inside the apostolic palace. And he’s reluctantly honored the custom (certainly dating no earlier than the Middle Ages) of wearing the white papal cassock, though he has refused to don any of the other outlandish accoutrement that certain of his predecessors (and their courtiers) apparently adored.
But, as he made clear in his talk on Monday to the Vatican chieftains, he will not tolerate any corruption, dishonesty, or the practice of any other vices aimed at derailing his project of reforming the church and the Roman Curia.
“The reform will move forward with determination, clarity, and firm resolve, since Ecclesia semper reformanda,” Francis told them.
He warned that he’d even use “painful and prolonged interventions” to make sure the reform succeeds. But he promised that, in this Jubilee Year, his reforming efforts would be tempered by mercy.
“May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back," he said. "May it also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater plan of salvation and his majestic and mysterious working.”
Most people probably missed it. And its significance.
At the end of his address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis quietly invoked the memory of one of the most important reform-minded bishops in the United States immediately following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65):
"Let us savor the magnificent prayer, commonly attributed to Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero, but pronounced for the first time by Cardinal John Dearden,” the pope said before reading an Italian version of that “magnificent prayer."
Cardinal Dearden—Archbishop of Detroit (1958-1980)—was recognized as the leader of the progressive wing of the U.S. church in the wake of Vatican II and was an architect of its initially powerful national episcopal conference.
He had attended all four sessions of the Council and was a member of its doctrinal commission. The experience of those years changed him profoundly.
Before going to Detroit he had spent a decade as Bishop of Pittsburgh where his hard-nosed reputation earned him the nickname, “Iron John.” But not long after Vatican II, as he looked for ways to implement conciliar reforms and consultation at all levels of the church, conservatives would accuse him of being a softy liberal.
It happened in Rome, too.
After John Paul II became pope in 1978 and his restorationist program started to take root at the Vatican, curia officials began treating supposed liberal bishops like Cardinal Dearden with scant regard—to put it charitably.
It was probably no accident, then, that Pope Francis cited him in a major address to the Roman Curia and its need for reform. For the late cardinal’s admirers, at least, the mention was a great tribute.
And, though it probably escaped the attention of most people, it was also an implicit and long overdue acknowledgement of another bishop who was accused of being a “loony liberal” by some of the most prominent church figures and so-called intellectuals of the last two pontificates.
The late Kenneth Untener was a Detroit priest and aid to Cardinal Dearden, who pushed for him to become Bishop of Saginaw, MI in 1980. But the Vatican almost rescinded the appointment after conservative Catholics complained about a human sexuality workshop the bishop-elect had allowed at the seminary where he was rector.
Cardinal Dearden used all the weight of his office to call off the curial dogs and after his episcopal ordination, the new bishop told the people of Saginaw, “Hi, my name is Ken and I’m going to be your waiter for a long, long time...” And there he stayed the next 24 years, before dying of leukemia in 2004.
You’re probably asking how Pope Francis’ address to the Roman Curia also honored Bishop Untener. Actually, it was he who composed the so-called “Romero Prayer” that Cardinal Dearden pronounced.
The pope read an Italian translation of the English prayer. And it is quite moving.
But for some unexplainable reason the department in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State that translates papal speeches re-translated it back into English rather than using the original text.
Here’s the prayer that then-Fr. Ken Untener wrote for Cardinal John Dearden in 1979 as part of a draft homily for a Mass for deceased Detroit priests.
It is published on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops under the title, Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.