What Is a "Francis Bishop," Anyway?

The appointment of a successor for Chicago's Cardinal Francis George had been anticipated as Francis's first big chance to make a major impact on the U.S. church. When his selection of Blase Cupich was announced, the religion journalist Amy Sullivan tweeted, "Since March 2013, we've all been saying, Wait until he fills the Chicago seat--that'll tell us whether he's for real. @Pontifex is for real." The choice, many observers agreed, was proof that Francis really does want to develop a different kind of leadership, not just in Rome but in America too.

I noted in a post last week that Francis had surprised me by doing what I most hoped he would do -- articulating a vision of episcopal leadership that deemphasized culture-war posturing and called for bishops to be "dedicated to repairing divisions, not deepening them." News accounts of the "Francis effect" tend to refer to his noteworthy personal choices since he became pope -- things like living in a small set of rooms instead of the papal apartments, eschewing some of the more regal vestments of the office, and saying friendly, almost offhand things like "Who am I to judge?" when speaking to reporters about controversial issues. Certainly the pope is setting an example when he does these things. But he has also spelled out the changes he wants to bring about in explicit terms, and anyone who wants to know what a bishop in the era of Francis ought to be like need only read what Francis has said on the subject. 

Francis's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is specifically addressed to the church's mission of evangelization, but for Francis that subject provides an opportunity to spell out in detail the ways in which the church itself needs to undergo "conversion" to communicate the Gospel more faithfully and effectively. This paragraph, in which he lays out a set of goals and desired traits for bishops, ought to  be tacked above the desk of every ordinary in the U.S. If Francis really was intimately involved in the selection of Bishop Cupich for Chicago -- which I have no reason to doubt -- it's safe to conclude that he found in Cupich a candidate likely to fulfill this vision:

31. The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32). To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths. In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, he will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.

More than what they wear or where they live or what kind of car they travel in, if you want to know whether a bishop is living up to the expectations of Pope Francis, you can look to this striking vision of pastoral leadership. It's not vague or empty of substance. It's quite specific, and demanding. (There's even a footnote in the original indicating which specific canons he refers to.) Is your bishop an "unassuming and merciful presence" in your midst? Is he doing everything he can to "reach everyone"? Is he the kind of shepherd who "above all" is concerned with "allowing the flock to strike out on new paths," as he walks behind giving merciful assistance to stragglers? That's what Francis thinks the church needs. That's a Francis bishop.

UPDATE: You can hear more from me about Francis and his plans for the church by attending the Feast of St. Francis Lecture at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on October 2. Details here.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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