Amid summer swelter, Rome prepares for ‘reform moments’ set for autumn, beyond

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Lewis Fernands waters his vegetable garden in Hiowa, Guyana. The Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region will gather in the Vatican Oct. 6-27. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

VATICAN CITY — Soaring temperatures and stifling humidity have made Rome something of a sweltering furnace this summer. To make matters worse, garbage has been left to accumulate on the street during the recent heatwave, with the sheer volume of trash sparking a public health warning. 

Away from the chaos and the heat, Pope Francis is taking a staycation in the Casa Santa Marta residence where, for the month of July, he doesn’t hold general audiences and reduces his official engagements.

But the restless 82-year-old pontiff never really stops, and on July 8 he celebrated Mass for migrants in St. Peter’s Basilica, marking six years since his visit to Lampedusa, the small island off the coast of southern Italy. It is one of the main entry points into Europe for new arrivals who risk their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean in makeshift vessels. Many of them die on the way, which, in the pope’s words, has turned the Mediterranean into a “cemetery.” 

That Lampedusa visit — Francis’ first outside of Rome as pope — set the tone for a papacy that prioritizes pastoral and social needs, and always looks outside the bubble of the Vatican. Before his election, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had never lived or studied in Rome. We should bear this in mind when looking to two “reform moments” due in the coming months: one, which is taking place in October, and another expected by the end of the year or in early 2020.

The first is the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, which will gather in the Vatican Oct. 6-27, and the second is the new constitution for the Roman Curia, “Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”). There’s been a lot of speculation and analysis of the latter, when it is the former, with its focus on the pastoral needs of a specific region, that is likely to have a more lasting impact on the life of the church.

A draft of the constitution, which has been worked on by the pope and his cardinal advisers for six years, has been sent to bishops’ conferences to offer feedback, and has been leaked to a number of media outlets.

The document is going to remodel the mission of the Vatican, making evangelization, serving the pope and assisting the world’s bishops the top priorities. It means slimming down a central bureaucracy whose offices will no longer run as personal fiefdoms and, crucially, deepening a service-focused mentality. This is already being talked about by bishops coming to Rome for their “ad limina” meetings with the pope and Vatican dicasteries, which are supposed to take place every five years.

The archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, said he noticed a marked difference during last June’s gathering of the Australian bishops, as compared with the last “ad limina” visits eight years ago.

“There’s none of this, ‘We’re the schoolmaster, and you are the pupil,’” he explained while in Rome.

The reform of the Curia is gradual and painstaking. It is, as the pope once said, a bit like cleaning the sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush. It is also worth asking how much impact will a new constitution have?

Reorganizing Vatican departments is unlikely to make much difference to the lives of ordinary Catholics, although the shift in mentality is far more important, particularly given the complaints from cardinals and bishops in years past about treatment from officials in Rome. Rather than rushing though slapdash structural changes, Francis has already achieved a more lasting reform of the curia by reducing its power and by outlining that it exists to serve the universal church and the pope, whose job is to govern. 

Here is where we come to the Amazon synod. On the agenda is how the church can become a prophetic voice in a region so often exploited, and how an indigenous Catholic-Christianity can be forged. The bishops will also discuss whether married “elders” can be ordained as priests, given some communities in the region go for months without receiving sacraments. If this goes through, it could have implications far beyond the Amazon, as it would see the church ordaining married men as priests on the grounds of pastoral need. The only married priests in the church today are ex-clergy from other Christian denominations or from the Eastern churches. 

During this pontificate, the synod of bishops, not the Roman Curia, has emerged as the vehicle for pushing forward the pope’s pastoral agenda. For Francis, it is a process of harnessing voices for the local church, and then he, as pope, having the final say.

In this way, the periphery has come to the center, although the unanswered question is whether the church will allow itself to be reformed from the margins. 


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