If people actually paid attention to what Pope Francis says and writes – that includes bishops and cardinals, even those retired – they would not be at all confused about where he’s trying to move the church. And one thing they’d grasp immediately is that he has little tolerance for clericalism and those ambitious for ecclesiastical promotion. Francis has spelled out in no uncertain terms that being a priest and bishop means being a servant-leader. And, using the traditional biblical image of the shepherd, he has said the ordained must not only lead, but must also walk among the sheep and “many times behind [them], to help those who are falling behind and also to follow the scent of the sheep that know where the good grass is.” At Mass last Sunday the pope quoted various qualities of “closeness and tenderness” that the prophet Ezekiel identifies with the truly good shepherds, saying, “Those of us who are called to be pastors in the Church cannot stray from this example, if we do not want to become hirelings.” And then he added, “In this regard the People of God have an unerring sense for recognizing good shepherds and in distinguishing them from hirelings.” The pope’s point was clear. Catholics are not fooled by pious acting clerics that are aloof from their people and show them no compassion. “The starting point of salvation is not the confession of the sovereignty of Christ, but rather the imitation of Jesus’s works of mercy through which he brought about his kingdom,” he said. “If we truly love [people], we will be willing to share with them what is most precious to us – Jesus himself and his Gospel.” No doubt, that also means the real presence of Jesus, which every orthodox Catholic – ordained and non-ordained – knows to be the Eucharist.
We celebrate the first Sunday of Advent in a few days and thus begin the new liturgical year. So it’s fitting that Pope Francis this past Monday filled a three-month-long gap and named a new prefect for the Congregation for Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW). He’s Cardinal Robert Sarah, sixty-nine, a scripture scholar and native of Guinea-Conakry in West Africa. Although he was a diocesan bishop for twenty-two years, this is now his third consecutive Vatican posting, dating back to 2001 when he began a nine-year term as archbishop-secretary at the Congregation for Evangelization (Propaganda Fide). He spent the past four years as president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” an appointment that came almost immediately with the red hat. Liturgists and liturgical militants were surprised by his selection as CDW prefect. Traditionalists enamoured of the Tridentine Mass and critical of the post-Vatican II liturgical reform are pleased because they see him as conservative and sympathetic to their agenda. Defenders of the much-maligned post-Vatican II liturgy are disappointed for the same reasons. But Cardinal Sarah could end up surprising both groups. Those who have worked with him say he is unambitious, a good listener and, despite showing a clear conservative side since coming to Rome, remains a “Vatican II man.” They say he also tends to back the underdog. For example, he was supposed to address a recent gathering of Tridentinists – a vocal minority in the Church that was triumphalistically enthusiastic of the last pontificate, but which has been just short of hostile towards the current one. In the end, however, Cardinal Sarah never spoke to the traditionalists. And no reason was offered. It could a sign that, more than a champion of the loser, he is really a “sunflower bishop,” one that moves in the direction of whomever happens to be the pope.
The appointment of good bishops will be essential if Pope Francis hopes to change the culture of the church and bring about true ecclesial reform and renewal. Until he is able to rescue the “bishop-making system” from being an incestuous and self-perpetuating “old boys network,” he will have to rely on his apostolic nuncios and members of the Congregation of Bishops to follow the criteria for good pastors that he has enunciated on numerous occasions. There are signs that this is beginning to happen. Many believe the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich to Chicago is a prime example. And in just the past week a number of men who have spent most of their ordained lives in parish ministry were named bishops or promoted to posts with even greater responsibility. Several of them were named last Saturday alone. In Ireland Bishop Kieran O’Reilly, a sixty-two-year-old priest of the Society of African Missions (SMA) and head of the small Diocese of Killaloe the past four years, was named Archbishop of Cashel, one of the country’s four metropolitan sees. He got the “smell of the sheep” while laboring much of his life in Liberia and Nigeria before serving as worldwide head of his order (2001-2010). The new bishop named to Blois (France), Jean-Pierre Batut, sixty, spent more than seventeen years as a parish priest before becoming auxiliary bishop in Lyon six years ago. And Fr. William Nolan, sixty, was appointed the new bishop-elect of Galloway (Scotland). Except for advanced studies and the three years he was on staff at the Scots College in Rome, he has always been a parish priest. The Diocese of Gary in the United States also got what appears to be a “pastoral bishop” this past week. He’s Bishop Donald Hying, fifty-one, auxiliary in Milwaukee since 2011. A former seminary rector, he served in parishes for thirteen of his twenty-five years as a priest.