This week his committee of eight cardinals began work on a radical reform of the scandal-hit Vatican
Paul Vallelly Independent/UK 4 October 2013
It ought to have been, for Pope Francis, a day of happiness. It was the first visit of his life to Assisi, the home of the saint whose name the new pontiff chose as a kind of mission statement. But the news came in that as many as 300 migrants were feared dead after the sinking of an overloaded boat off the coast of the southern island of Lampedusa. “Today is a day for crying,” he said instead.
Yet that was apt too. Lampedusa, the first European port of overcrowded call for many people fleeing poverty and war in Africa, was the first place to which Francis travelled outside Rome as Pope. The great saint of Assisi, who cast off a pampered life as the son of a rich merchant to live among the destitute, may be the great exemplar of embraced poverty. But it is in places like Lampedusa that the reality of involuntary poverty in this globalised world is made manifest.
The figure on the cross in Assisi’s Church of San Damiano was one, the Pope noted, on which Jesus is depicted not as dead, but alive, his eyes open to a world in which we all need to live more simply. Francis has embraced that by shunning his gold-leafed papal palace for the spartan quarters of a Vatican guest house.
As a measure of his intent to turn the Church upside down the Pope took with him the eight cardinals with whom he had spent the past three days in a closed meeting with no Vatican officials present. It was the first gathering of a sadical new body Francis has set up to act as a counter-weight to the bureaucrats who form the Church’s governing Curia.
The chosen eight have all in the past been strong critics of the way Rome has acted as the master of local churches around the world rather than their servant. This week they began work on a radical reform of the scandal-hit Vatican. But they are also looking at how to give a greater role to lay people, to women, to divorced and remarried Catholics – who have traditionally been marginalised– and to ensure that the Church prioritises the poor. They have discussed setting up church courts all around the world to deal with paedophile priests more swiftly and severely.
All this was once unthinkable. But this new Pope has given an extraordinary interview saying the church had grown “obsessed” with “small minded rules” and lost sight of the primacy of compassion. Without change “the moral edifice of the Church is likely to fall like a house of cards”. This week he gave an even more startling interview in which he said the Curial court was “the leprosy of the papacy” whose “Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us” adding “I’ll do everything I can to change it”. Being open to modernity, he said, is a duty.
Conservative Catholics are blanching at all this. The moral philosopher Germain Grisez, the darling of the conservative theology of the previous two popes, has attacked Francis for “letting loose with his thoughts” as self-indulgentlyas he might unburden himself with friends after a good dinner and plenty of wine”. Ouch! Yet Pope Francis, undeterred, is revealing himself as more revolutionary with every day that passes.
‘Pope Francis – Untying the Knots’ by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury [Abridged]