VATICAN CITY — Walk around Rome during the holiday season and you see the city’s famous streets decorated with festive lights, tall Christmas trees in the piazzas and you smell roasted chestnuts everywhere.
Step into one of the Eternal City’s 900 churches and there is likely to be an elaborate Nativity display — a “presepio” — renowned in Italy for their use of “real-life” figures to dramatize the mystery of the Incarnation. A famous example of this is in Naples, where everyone, saint or sinner, is welcome around the crib, and which featured a Donald Trump character this year.
The Vatican’s manger display included rubble from the Basilica of St. Benedict in Norcia, nearly destroyed in this year’s earthquakes, with offerings left by the crib going to help rebuild the church. The main body of the Nativity scene, donated by the Archdiocese of Malta, included a replica of a Maltese boat designed to represent both the seafaring traditions of the island and also, as Pope Francis explained, “the sad and tragic reality of migrants on boats headed toward Italy.”
Earthy, real-world depictions of the Incarnation, in which the story of Christ’s birth resonates with contemporary men and women, is in keeping with Francis’ desire to ensure that faith offers concrete responses to poverty, war and care for creation.
As ever, this pope practices what he preaches. We saw this in the days leading up to Christmas when Francis celebrated his 80th birthday by having breakfast with eight of Rome’s homeless people, inviting them into the dining room of his residence, the Casa Santa Marta. Francis did not want his birthday to be marked with parties and lots of fuss, so instead it was an ordinary workday for him — although there was a cake.
Francis turned 80 as his papacy approaches its fourth anniversary, and so far it has been an action-packed pontificate, so often defined by his personal charisma and spontaneous gestures. But it would be a mistake to define this pope simply by his kindness to refugees and the homeless. This pontificate has its roots in the Second Vatican Council, the event that set the church on a path of renewal and engagement with the world.
By continuing the legacy of the council, Francis ensures that his reforms will be lasting because he makes them less about him and more about pushing the church ever closer to Vatican II’s vision. For a Latin American like this pope, the council is important because it brought the local church into partnership with the universal church, and saw the flowering of an incarnational Christianity that took root in a variety of cultures across the globe.
The pope does not see the council simply as a collection of documents, but instead he knows it as a defining event in the life of Catholicism, and one that set it on a new course. The church is no longer best understood as a top-down hierarchical pyramid, but one in which local churches play their proper part, in which there is a model of servant-leadership that values listening to ordinary Catholics.
“In this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the top is located beneath the base,” Francis said during one of the most important speeches of his papacy at last year’s Synod of Bishops. “Consequently, those who exercise authority are called ‘ministers,’ because, in the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all.”
Francis is operating a “bottom up” approach, one that is informed by a theology of the people — the idea that the “sense of faith” of ordinary Catholics is a guiding light for the church, while the job of leaders is to harness it. This is why he sees the collegial structure of the Synod of Bishops — not exclusively the structures of the Roman Curia — as a way to govern the church.
The last synod meeting took the pulse of the church on the subject of family life by soliciting the opinions of regular Catholics, and another questionnaire will be sent out ahead of the 2018 gathering on vocations and young people.
For this pope it is not a question of “Rome ruling,” but where Rome and local churches govern together. In this view, the pope is the center of unity, not an overlord.
This style of governing, however, has come at a cost. It has exposed divisions within the church, something that has come to light with the series of questions presented to Francis by a group of cardinals asking for clarifications about his post-synodal document Amoris Laetitia. They are concerned that the pope has endangered the integrity of Catholic doctrine by allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain circumstances.
So far Francis has declined to respond to the cardinals’ questions — known as dubia — preferring instead to warn against “rigid” ways of approaching the faith rather than reiterating God’s compassion and mercy.
“Those who don’t know the Lord’s caresses don’t know Christian doctrine!” Francis said during a homily at Mass this month in the Casa Santa Marta.
Some critics of Francis are likening the debate over Communion for those who remarry without an annulment to the fourth-century Arian controversy over the divinity of Christ, while others warn of a possible threat to church unity.
The truth is that with his synod text Francis has sought to listen, reflect and synthesize a two-yearlong debate on how the church can best minister to individuals and families. Some have experienced divorce and fall short of Catholic teaching, but whatever their situation, the pope’s message is the same: the church must listen and accompany; show compassion before condemnation and offer mercy before making judgments.
Next year, Francis will make some important foreign trips. The Vatican has confirmed that the pope will go to the Marian shrine of Fatima, Portugal, in May; it is also highly likely that he will visit India and Bangladesh. Also being studied is a trip to Africa, his second journey to that continent, with war-torn South Sudan as a destination. The pope has been visited by church leaders from the country asking him to visit and to try to mediate peace.
After almost four years in the Chair of St. Peter, Francis has become a global leader commanding respect across continents and among heads of state worldwide. At the same time, he’s shaken up the church with reform of the Vatican, a new style of papacy and a demand that Catholics roll up their sleeves and help the neediest in their communities and elsewhere.
All of this has been a rollercoaster ride of achievements over such a short span of time. So buckle up. The next 12 months are sure to bring be more of the same.
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