Michael Kelly SJ. The canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII – an event of telling significance.

Pope Francis may need some help from Our Lady The Untier Of Knots

On April 27, we will witness an event that will tell us more about what to make of Papa Francesco and what to expect in his papacy. He will canonize on the same day both Popes John Paul II and John XXII. Each represents contrasting styles and records as Bishops of Rome: John XIII who convoked the Vatican Council and opened up the Church; John Paul II who stiffened and straightened the Church when some thought it was out of control.

From his opening words as pope, Papa Francis has cut a very different path to that of John Paul II and his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI – an engaging and direct, simple and accessible approach whereas Pope John Paul drew millions to events of uncertain significance (such as World Youth Days) and Pope Benedict, as either Bishop of Rome or Joseph Ratzinger the theologian, preferred solitude as he produced books and encyclicals.

Pope Francis has been quick to commence a style of more inclusive leadership through consultation and discussion, as demonstrated in his calling an extraordinary Synod in October. And he has moved to see the Church as a whole addresses the greatest challenge to its credibility in centuries by getting the new Vatican Commission addressing the issue underway with credible members and a reform agenda. This is of special relevance to us in Australia who have witnessed appalling sight of Cardinal Pell trying to call the brutal treatment of sex abuse victims “prudential management of the Church’s assets”.

Along the way, the Pope has carefully but emphatically faced the Church in a fresh if not new direction. And, according to well informed sources in Rome, opposition to his reforms is mounting even as the  backlog of issues the Church has to face remains in place.

He started early to address some of the outstanding concerns. With two simple observations – one to journalists in the plane on the way from Brazil and the other in his long interview with some Jesuit magazines last year – he has personally managed to defuse sex and homosexuality as obsessive topics of Catholic focus.

However, the Church has virtually 50 years of unaddressed issues and reforms that need to be addressed:

  • Clericalism, the restructuring of ministry and that ticket into the clerical culture at the heart of so much trouble for the Church – celibacy – which Pope Paul VI prevented the Vatican Council from considering;
  • The weak grasp of human biology reflected in the Church’s sexual ethics, particularly as shown in the controversial issue of contraception;
  • Centralism and careerism in Church administration and those who ambition it;
  • The outdated nature of the Church’s legal processes;
  • And perhaps the biggest issue: the exclusion of women from positions of decision-making significance.

That’s where the inclusion of Pope John XXIII in the beatification ceremonies next month becomes a clear indication of the style and direction of his term as Bishop of Rome.

John XXIII’s cause for canonization had been languishing. Pope Francis dispensed with the usual process and simply declared, as he can, that John XXIII was worthy of canonization.

Fans and devotees of John Paul II had started the chant for his canonization at his funeral – Santo Subito. But the canonization wheels continued to turn for John Paul II with his enthusiastic supporters declaring at his death that he should be called John Paul the Great. That title is appearing to be at least an overstatement as the details of his protection of the disgraced and disgraceful Marcial Marciel, child abusing father of two families whose crimes go back to his earliest days as Founder of the Legionaries of Christ in the 1940s.

But the association of the two Popes in this canonization process is no casual coincidence. As all leaders know, managing change requires that the leader take the majority of the community, organization or nation along with him or her as the changes unfold. Faction-ridden as the Vatican in particular and Church in general really are, Francis has to take as many as he can from all factions with him as he helps the Church face the reality of its challenges and respond constructively.

Pope Francis has already indicated how he wants to address the tense issues in the life of the Church with open discussion, inclusive participation in the conversation and a process that will reach conclusions. Along with the other hot topics, the subject of the Extraordinary Synod – family life, its challenges and how to include the divorced and remarried in the Church community – is a topic whose handling can be managed only with consultation and inclusion.

As Jesuit Provincial in the 1970s, he was widely seen as, and has admitted himself to have been, a self willed and authoritarian figure. Divided as the Jesuits in Argentina were, he did little more than antagonize many with his style. But he has learnt from that failure. At the heart of Jesuit governance is the good working relationship and openness needed between the leader and his subjects. It needs to be inclusive and consultative leadership or it fails to do what the Jesuit Founder Ignatius Loyola wanted it to be.

After failing as Provincial, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had another opportunity to learn how to govern when he became Archbishop of Buenos Aires. There, his approach was to be decisive only after extensive and inclusive engagement with those involved in or affected by the decision he had to make.

Such a process means change will only come slowly. But to govern effectively in often-conflictive circumstances, Pope Francis needs to govern inclusively, as reflected symbolically in this joint canonization this month.

These events defuse tensions while at the same firmly lead in a positive direction – defuse the cultists by recognizing John Paul II yet underlining what Pope Francis really wants: a return to the spirit of Vatican II as the animating spirit of the Church. That’s why John XXIII got fast–tracked.

The documented turning point of Pope Francis’s life after his failure as Jesuit Provincial occurred before a picture in a German church of Our Lady, The One Who Unties Knots. To do what he plainly wants to do, Our Lady will have to be working overtime.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of ucanews.com

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Father Michael Kelly is an Australian Jesuit who directed the Catholic Church's news feature and commentary service, UCA News, 2008-2018. He is the publisher of the English editions of La Croix International and La Civilta Cattolica, the 170 year old Jesuit publication of the Italian Jesuits.

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