New Balance

by Juan L. Mercado

Marking the first year as pope is an “arbitrary measure for a 2,000-year-old institution that thinks in terms of centuries,” notes the newspaper Guardian. That provides context for Pope Francis, who’ll complete his first year as pontiff on March 13.

The man, who booked a return flight to Argentina after the 2013 papal conclave, has amazed people since. “Wear it if you wish, Monsignor,” he said, waving away a new pope’s cloak. “The carnival is over.” Clad in a plain cassock, he first sought blessings from startled crowds at Piazza San Pietro.

He shunned the papal apartments and kept his spare Casa Santa Marta lodging, where he shares meals with guests. Pius XII ate alone most of the time during his 1939-1958 papacy. “We went down for coffee break,” recalls Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas. “I turn around, and it’s the Pope! He’s in line to get coffee himself. No flunkies surround him…. It was stunning.”

He wanted to shake up the Church. “And we’ve all been shaking since, even in ultra-skeptical Western Europe,” wrote the UK Telegraph. His words “carry moral force because he lives them out every day before our eyes…”

“Ministers of the gospel must warm the hearts of people as they walk through the dark night,” Francis said in a La Civiltà Cattolica interview. They dialogue without getting lost. People want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats. “He’s upset [all] sacred apple carts, as Jesus once did.”

But changing the storyline is different from changing the story. Two millennia show that the Vatican never willingly reformed itself. “It had to be led.” And ultra-rightists calculate how long a 77-year-old, with part of a lung missing, will “endure before the arrival of another new broom, hopefully more to their liking.”

Francis has not accommodated them. He overhauled the Vatican’s financial system late February, the Financial Times reports. He set up a central bank, then handpicked Cardinal George Pell of Sydney to head a new secretariat for the economy. Staffed by eight clerics and seven lay experts, it oversees all economic and administrative activities within the Holy See and Vatican City.

He is to name an auditor with oversight powers. The Church must manage assets in the “light of its mission to evangelize, with particular concern for the most needy,” he stressed.

“Vatican finances were out of control,” observed Carlo Marroni, who covers the Vatican for Il Sole 24. “Each department acted as an individual centre of power. The real break with the past is that the Pope created new figures, with powers of intervention and who report directly to him.”

Sure, Francis embraces simplicity, writes John Allen in the Boston Globe. “But he’s hardly a simple man.” In fact, he is also “an extraordinarily crafty politician.”

He addressed a festering complaint by cardinals that they could never get a straight answer from the Vatican about finances. “A no-nonsense guy, Pell is not likely to be cowed by Vatican mandarins who resent intrusion on their prerogatives.”
 
Francis’ appointments bypassed Italians. Historically, the Vatican has been “heavily conditioned by an Italian ethos.” Forms of corruption were not even perceived that way. Rigging competitive bidding or lending a veneer of legitimacy to money transfers on behalf of fat-cat benefactors is seen as “keeping things in the family.”

Francis and Pell see eye to eye on transparency and accountability. On doctrinal matters, Pell is a staunch conservative. If he took over the Congregation for Bishops, as rumored years back, “it’s entirely possible Francis might today be contemplating how to get rid of him,” Allen adds.

“In one fell swoop, Francis gave himself a chance to name a new leader for the Australian church and also a capable ally in a spot where he’s qualified to get things done.”

Has Francis’ message seeped into the Philippines, a country of 96.7 million where 76.1 million are Catholics?

Until recently, many Catholic bishops here focused time and effort in attacking the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012. So did conservative prelates elsewhere.

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and contraceptives,” Francis said earlier. “This is not possible. We have to talk about them in a context … and find a new balance. Otherwise, the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the fragrance of the Gospel.”

Recalling the bitter debate over the RH Law, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the newly elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said: “We Church leaders did not listen enough to the other side. We  polarized the Church. We polarized the country.”

Debates then “reached the point when arguments became ugly, personal, not using reason anymore. We were using our emotions. Even if [proponents of the law] were saying things contrary to Church teaching, we should never be lacking in charity.”

The task ahead is to march with the same cadence as Pope Francis. Did Filipino prelates signal that “new balance” in their latest conference statement titled “To Bring Glad Tidings to the Poor”?

Here, the richest 10 percent of the population earns 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent. The CBCP declares: We need to understand poverty as “a scandal that all sectors perpetuate…, our responsibility for it in our individual lives and shared cultures. Jesus’ call to love one another compels Christians to work for the healing of all.”

Like Christians the world over, Francis bowed to receive the ashes on his forehead Wednesday. “We are creatures,” he said. “We are not God.” Time magazine adds: “His attitude of mercy for all is the new tone for the world’s largest church.”

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

X