The Pastoral Side of Pope Francis

Over the last couple of days, I picked up on sole of the articles relating to the new Pope’s apparent insensitivity to what he termed as the “carnival”, referring to items of Papal dress revived since 2005 by Benedict XVI. In the absolute, none of these items is necessary and the Pope could run around in pyjamas or a simple priest’s cassock and still do his job.

Today, I would like to pick up on an article by Sandro Magister – The Name of Francis, the Rule of St. Ignatius, and the Example of Jonah. In the last part, in his former ministry in Argentina, Pope Francis speaks about pastoral questions.

* * *

A: I would have spoken about two things of which there is need in this moment, there is more need: mercy and apostolic courage.

Q: What do they mean to you?

A: To me apostolic courage is disseminating. Disseminating the Word. Giving it to that man and to that woman for whom it was bestowed. Giving them the beauty of the Gospel, the amazement of the encounter with Jesus… and leaving it to the Holy Spirit to do the rest. It is the Lord, says the Gospel, who makes the seed sprout and bear fruit.

Q: In short, it is the Holy Spirit who performs the mission.

A: The early theologians said: the soul is a kind of sailing boat, the Holy Spirit is the wind that blows in the sail, to send it on its way, the impulses and the force of the wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Without His drive, without His grace, we don’t move forward. The Holy Spirit lets us enter the mystery of God and saves us from the danger of a gnostic Church and from the danger of a self-referential Church, leading us to mission.

Q: That means also overthrowing all your functionalist solutions, your consolidated plans and pastoral systems…

A: I didn’t say that pastoral systems are useless. On the contrary. In itself everything that leads by the paths of God is good. I have told my priests: ‘Do everything you should, you know your duties as ministers, take your responsibilities and then leave the door open.’ Our sociologists of religion tell us that the influence of a parish has a radius of six hundred meters. In Buenos Aires there are about two thousand meters between one parish and the next. So I then told the priests: ‘If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him.’ A parish priest said to me: ‘But Father, if we do this the people then won’t come to Church.’ ‘But why?’ I asked him: ‘Do they come to Mass now?’ ‘No,’ he answered. And so! Coming out of oneself is also coming out from the fenced garden of one’s own convictions, considered irremovable, if they risk becoming an obstacle, if they close the horizon that is also of God.

Q: This is valid also for lay people…

A: Their clericalization is a problem. The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission by virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness.


Exemplary with regard to this last reference to the centrality of baptism is the battle that the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires fought in the Argentine Church against those who tend to withhold baptism from the newborns of those who are far removed from religious practice:

Go Forth and Baptize. The Wager of the Argentine Church (30.11.2009)

* * *

This is all about taking mission and pastoral ministry out of the box. I have ministered as a deacon in French country parishes where our fairly ad hoc pastoral initiatives sometimes came into conflict with the “system” mentality of the nouvelle pastorale. This is something very difficult to define, but I think Pope Francis does it very well. I remember my pastoral theology lessons at Fribourg given by the diocesan seminary rector who was also a professor at the University – completely Marxised and formatted in a paradigm that no ordinary person can understand! I always thought that pastoral ministry was simply being a good shepherd as Jesus exhorted us in the Gospel, following the example of saints like the holy Cure d’Ars…

We are perhaps witnessing the dismantling of a kind of “pastoral paralysis” that has afflicted parish life in many dioceses. “Pastoral systems” can have their use, like educational methods taught to those who become schoolteachers, but they are not an absolute. Sometimes, one has to think outside the box and take creative initiatives. We take responsibility and leave the door open. This is a refreshing piece of wisdom I did not expect to read from a Pope or even a high-profile Cardinal Archbishop!

What now comes is what traditionalists and continuing Anglicans have been doing for decades:

So I then told the priests: ‘If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him.’

There is of course the difference – that traditionalists and continuing Anglicans have had to remove themselves from “normal” parish life on account of its having become dysfunctional. The other aspect of pastoral ministry in this wise priest’s advice is the question of clericalism. Clericalism is not merely a disease of those who are officially clerics, priests and deacons – but of any group of persons in a community that cultivates a manipulative and exclusive spirit. I have often seen parishes poisoned and killed by clericalised laity. The healthy parish involves symbiosis between the priest with his specific responsibilities and the council of lay faithful who help and advise him, each person bringing his God-given talents to the service of all.

If this is the kind of insight we are going to see, then ermine trimmed Papal shoulder capes and red shoes really do become relative – as we all take our freedom and initiative, which also involve the service of the liturgy and putting our talents to the Lord’s service.

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