Pope Francis wants brave clergy ready to fight for a strong church

Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates at the Civitavecchia prison in Civitavecchia, Italy, April 14, 2022. [File, Standard]

Ten years ago this week, Pope Francis stepped out on the Vatican balcony, waved to the tumultuous crowd and said, 'Buona Sera' (good evening).

Those few words and warm gestures revealed a great deal about the man just chosen to lead the 1.3 billion Catholics worldwide. The watching millions sensed that this Pontiff was different as the 'man from the end of the earth' instantly radiated a sense of expectation, hope and joy to an aging church, exhausted from the weight of scandals and fast losing touch with its mission to the world.

Pope Francis has not disappointed and now we celebrate a decade of leadership that has shook the church to its very foundations. Choosing the name Francis already suggested a leadership of humility, service, simplicity, care for the earth and the poor.

His mission of mercy has brought him to meet prisoners, migrants, LGBTQ, homeless, indigenous peoples and other section of society living on the periphery - or leftovers of an unjust society as the Pontiff calls them. His writings, off the cuff remarks and reforms, however, have not pleased everyone. Conservatives complain that he has gone too far, while liberals claim he has not gone far enough. Yet, Francis is neither a conservative nor a liberal.

He is entirely in touch with tradition but does not suffer from traditionalism; fully aware that the Gospel must address the context of today's ever-changing world. He is in fact a radical, in the very essence of the word, faithful to his roots - the Gospel - and committed to reforming a church turning in on itself. This has not pleased the traditionalists who in the words of The Tablet Editor, Brendan Walsh, view the church as "a pious otherworldly cult, frozen in time and disengaged from reality".

Francis wants to see a church out on the streets, dirty from its labours and led by pastors who smell of the sheep, all struggling to build the kingdom of God which is a just and inclusive society.

He refers to the church as a field hospital but those clerics who are accustomed to a life of privilege, elitism and entitlement have been made very uncomfortable with his challenging witness and at times bullish streak. He has met resistance at every corner, starting with the church management structure, popularly known as the Curia. But he curtailed their powers and appointed new people who shared his vision and values, including Cardinals from the remotest part of the planet.

Now he is fully involved in his major reform initiative in the shape of a Global Synod. For the past year, the billion plus Catholics have engaged in a listening exercise and responding to a questionnaire on issues the church faces everywhere: the role of women in leadership, the future of a celibate and married priesthood, divorce and remarriage and many more.

It is the greatest consultative exercise the world has witnessed and currently the faithful's responses are being collated in Rome, in preparation for a further round of consultations.

Francis is comfortable with not having all the answers; a prerequisite for any dialogue exercise. He has exercised caution on the Ukraine war, offering instead to visit both Kiev and Moscow. This week he acknowledged that the law on compulsory celibacy for priesthood might change. On the subject of gays in the church, he asks who is he to judge while calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

Nearer home, however, local prelates last week blatantly claimed that, "LGBTQ ideology seeks to destroy life and is an attack on humanity... undermining the dignity of life".

Harsh, condemnatory language, yet the Catholic Catechism states that "Homosexuals must be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity" (No 2358).

These are just a few of the many questions the Synod will face. The challenge is to find a balance between fidelity to the Gospel and responding to the pastoral context in which people live. In other words, to distinguish between essentials and incidentals. He needs to guide the reform path while ensuring no schisms take place. Yet, the 86-year-old does instill confidence that he can pull this off.