Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Pope Francis fulfilling the vision of St. John Paul II

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In that document, John Paul II identified a pathway forward for reforming the papacy. It is striking that Pope Francis, who in the opinion of many is a different kind of pope, is in fact relying on many of the insights of that decades-old encyclical as his point of reference in reforming not only the papacy but the church. Four of those insights come to mind as I reflect on the fresh and visionary approach Pope Francis is bringing to the entire life of the church.

The first one is synodality. Synodality is an approach to church life that involves the participation of each local church in the governance of the universal church, through deliberative bodies. John Paul II made it clear that if the Petrine Office was going to be reformed, it would need the input of all churches, especially the Eastern ones. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has taken steps to this end.

In addition to appointing a Council of Cardinals to help him reform the Roman Curia, he also revised the way the Synod of Bishops would be organized and operate. He urged bishops attending the synod to speak openly: “No one should say to someone, ‘You cannot say that.’” Pope Francis has made it clear that the church needs to be more decentralized, placing in the hands of local bishops and national conferences of bishops certain decisions that need not be made in Rome.

Dialogue is a second central theme in “Ut Unum Sint.” John Paul II understood that too often people talk past each other without listening. Pope Francis, like his predecessor, is pressing for a more humble approach to conflict and division, but also in the church’s pastoral ministry. The pope recognizes, for instance, that when it comes to moral decision-making, it is important for pastors to have a dialogical approach to their service of people. Pastors must clearly articulate the general norms and the rules of Christian life.

At the same time, the pastor cannot stop there. As Francis writes in “Amoris Laetitia,” “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” Therefore, the pope calls for pastors to listen attentively, to use a dialogical approach when it comes to assisting people in their weighty moral decisions, taking into consideration the limits of people to act in certain cases, the extenuating circumstances and the brokenness that people suffer. “The church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion,” he notes.

Conversion is also central to the reform of the papacy, according to John Paul II. In fact, at one point in the encyclical he calls on all Christians to pray for the conversion of the pope. Pope Francis makes a similar call to conversion for all church leaders. He has condemned clericalism as a distortion of the Christian life, as it forgets that the church belongs to all the baptized, not just a select few. This is why, he notes, when it comes to each person’s conscience, pastors are to help form them, not replace them.

Finally, a vision of hope marks John Paul’s call for a reformed approach to the papacy. Throughout “Ut Unum Sint” the Polish pope encourages Christians to take up the work of reform, trusting that Christ is ever leading the church in new ways. As he wrote: “We know that during her earthly pilgrimage the church has suffered and will continue to suffer opposition and persecution. But the hope which sustains her is unshakable, just as the joy which flows from this hope is indestructible. In effect, the firm and enduring rock upon which she is founded is Jesus Christ, her Lord.”

These words easily could have been written by Pope Francis. At the core of his words and deeds is a palpable belief that Christ is leading the church in ever new ways. “God is always new; he never denies himself, he never says that what he had said is wrong, but he always surprises us,” he remarked in one of his daily homilies.

Yes, Pope Francis has introduced new ways of exercising the Petrine ministry, which was precisely the aspiration of Pope St. John Paul II. Just as his predecessor believed, Pope Francis understands that for an authentic reform of the church to take place, it must also involve a reform of the papacy. It is a reform that is committed to synodality, dialogue in all aspects of church life, ongoing conversion, particularly for the clergy, and a vision of hope marked by an abiding trust that Christ is always doing something new as the Risen One.

It is easy to feel threatened in moments of reform and renewal, especially if it means leaving behind familiar patterns, the security of being in total control, and the comfort of position and recognition. Unfortunately, the fearful will always advance a dark narrative about what is taking place, lamenting that the future will not have the clarity of the past, or, worse, that the reform is not faithful to the tradition. But that is precisely why any reform has to be inspired by a vision of hope that Christ is leading us in this time and place.

Not only did Pope St. John Paul II understand that, but so did Pope St. John XXIII, who warned of the prophets of gloom as the church began the reform at the Second Vatican Council: “In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure.

“In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

“We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Both good popes looked forward to the day when someone like Pope Francis would fulfill their dreams and lead the church with that hopeful vision.