The Reforms of Pope Francis: Can They Last?

Posted by Fr. Patrick Howell, S.J. on Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 10:58 AM PDT

Fr. Howell

March 13 marked the third anniversary of the election of Pope Francis—not only an Argentine, but also the first Jesuit ever elected pope. Several times I have been asked, “Can the reforms he has begun continue beyond his time as pope?” Here’s my take.

When the 114 cardinals elected him, they knew that three major reforms needed to occur: 1) the response to the sexual abuse crisis, 2) the reform of the Vatican bureaucracy, and 3) the reform of the scandalous Vatican Bank. Pope Francis has made a strong start on all three. But the cardinals got a whole lot more than they bargained on.

The key is that Francis has changed the culture. He has changed the very way that we think about the Catholic faith, so his reforms will continue long after he’s gone. Let me count the way!

1. He urges a decentralization of the Curia. He has repeatedly said, “Too many issues come to Rome for decisions?” He encourages disagreements and doubts. “Having all the opinions is the only way to do a genuine discernment.”

2. He excoriates the trappings and egos of clergy and hierarchs who lord it over others. From the beginning he has said that the Church is too narcissistic, too self-centered. In a telling image he said, “Christ is knocking on the door of the Church. But he’s knocking from the inside, trying to get out.” The Church needs to be a “field hospital.” It needs to go out to where the people are wounded and hurting.

3. He invites the poor and the homeless to breakfast with him. On Holy Thursday he washed and kissed the feet of Muslims, Hindus, Protestant and Catholics. “God’s mercy is never exhausted,” he says. He has inaugurated a Year of Mercy, and he himself embodies that reality.

Because of the change of atmosphere, because of the shift in church vision, it will be nearly impossible to revert to the defensive, whistle blowing Church which characterized so many of the previous years.

Fr. Patrick Howell, S.J., former dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, is currently the Distinguished Professor in the Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.