Pope Francis and Clerical Style

The word “style” appears quite often in the addresses of Pope Francis when he speaks about the clergy. He is saying this in the context of some pretty amazing changes that he has instituted.

At this particular time in history, we have, first of all, a pope who, in his own lifestyle, has returned the papacy more to the lifestyle of the apostles in the first century. For example, he moved out of the Papal Palace into a room in the local Vatican hostel. He goes downtown and picks up his glasses himself instead of having a lackey do it. He has been shedding some of the purely secular period-related accumulations in the lifestyles of clergy over the centuries.

These accretions are secular precisely in the sense that they were adopted in the period when ranking churchmen were also civil administrators. In other words, during the pre-medieval and medieval times, the boundary between the secular world and the ecclesiastical world was not clear at all.

Lastly, and the reason that all of this is happening, is that the secular additions have nothing to do with preaching the Gospel and, in fact, get in the way. They counter the openness of the world to the transcendent, and when clergy get caught up in this, they propagate secularism instead of Christianity.

In contrast, in the first few centuries of the life of the Church, Christianity was considered to be pagan and so there were very definite obstructions to Christians and Christianity in the economic and political worlds. Consequently Christians were constantly reminded of their role as the source of life and truth in the pagan world in which they were immersed.

Interestingly, allied with recovering the significance of ecclesiastical life in the very pagan world of today, according to most measures, Pope Francis has been emphasizing that churchmen and women work hard to relate to people so as to share the Gospel with them within a personal relationship. Intersubjectivity is part of the Christian message and not just an option.

‘Complicit’ Evil

At a meeting with the Corallo media association in Rome, Francis explained one broad underlying value that is a problem:

You spoke about clericalism. It is one of the evils of the Church. But it is a “complicit” evil, because priests take pleasure in the temptation to clericalize the laity, but many of the laity are on their knees asking to be clericalized, because it is more comfortable, it is more comfortable! This is a double sin! We must overcome this temptation. The layperson must be lay, one who is baptized, with the power that comes from his baptism. A servant, but with his lay vocation, and one does not sell this, one does not bargain with it, one should not be complicit with another person. . . . No. I am this way! Because that is my identity. I have heard this so many times in my homeland: “In my parish, you know, I have an excellent layman: he is a good organizer. . . . Your Eminence, why don’t we make him a deacon?” The priest’s suggestion is immediately to clericalize. Let’s make this layman. . . . Why? Why is the deacon or priest more important than the layman? No! This is the mistake!” (March 22, 2014).

This is the ascendancy of the clericalist perspective.

Civil Officials and Landowners

For Pope Francis, the problem manifests itself right in the complex relationships making up a parish, at least in his observation of the workings of some communities. If we may draw on Francis’ thinking in other places, then clericalism involves both a sense of feeling more important and the use of secular prerogatives in a way that hearkens back to at least the 18th century when they were civil officials and landowners. The above quotation highlights the pope’s concern about clericalism, which is, he told CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, “very present in Latin America” (CELAM, July 28, 2013). He is aware that there are many great clergy, but he had obviously also encountered some serious examples of clericalism. As we shall see, this observation is not limited to Latin America.

If one goes back to the time of the French Revolution (1789), one can see the same problem in very stark terms. There were many clergy who lived simply and close to their people. Then there were also clergy who enjoyed all the prerogatives of civil officials including high incomes, comfortable residences and social prerogatives. Mostly these meant that they were distant from “their” people, whom they would at most encounter across the desk or in the formal situations of liturgies.

In the same speech to the bishops of CELAM, the Pope went on to offer a really good explanation of subordination to the spiritual order. Denial of this subordination is the foundation of the problems of both clericalism and clericalizing. Getting a little technical, Francis explained that the priest’s or the layperson’s “immanence is in tension toward the transcendence of discipleship and toward the transcendence of mission. It does not allow for self-absorption: either it points to Jesus Christ or it points to the people to whom He must be proclaimed” (CELAM, July 28, 2013). What he was saying was that the principles of the higher order of spiritual reality organize the disposition of the lower material reality. Long ago, Augustine of Hippo said, for example, that the soul is king of the body and Christ is King of the soul.

Pope Francis has been promoting awareness of, and service of, these higher principles. There is, most fundamentally, the principle of communion where “Jesus does not want to act alone; He came to bring the love of God into the world and He wants to spread it in the style of communion, in the style of brotherhood. That is why He immediately forms a community of disciples, which is a missionary community” (Angelus, July 7, 2013). There again is the style of intersubjectivity unsullied by possessions or rank.

So the members of this community have the style of Christ. Then, for example, “many times we find, among our faithful, simple old women who perhaps didn’t finish elementary school, but who speak to you about things better than a theologian, because they have the Spirit of Christ” (Homily, Sept. 2, 2014).

Especially in such people there is “a new and authentic Christian mentality” for a “new style of ecclesial life.” These had been the words of Paul VI at the end of Vatican II, and Pope Francis quoted them at an International Symposium on the Management of Ecclesiastical Goods (March 8-9, 2014). These are the higher principles that ought to regulate our day-to-day relationships.

He and Pope Paul were getting back to the community as intersubjective in its purest sense rather than being a community with an isolated CEO. In all of this there is, first of all, the relationship to Christ: “Ours must not be just any kind of prayer, but familiar union with Christ, in which we daily encounter His gaze and sense that He is asking us the question: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mk 3:31-34). One in which we can calmly reply: “Lord, here is your mother, here are your brothers! I hand them over to you; they are the ones whom you entrusted to me.” Such trusting union with Christ is what nourishes the life of a pastor” (Address to the U.S. Bishops, Sept. 23, 2015). There is the foundation of the style, discovering, in the light of Christ, who is my mother, who are my brothers — something noteworthy not just for bishops.

Promoters of the Culture of Encounter

Then shifting from the perspective of the clergyman relating to individuals to the perspective of clergy as significant builders of ecclesial culture, the pope went on to say that “we are promoters of the culture of encounter. We are living sacraments of the embrace between God’s riches and our poverty. We are witnesses of the abasement and the condescension of God who anticipates in love our every response.”

There is also a powerlessness in the clergy’s presence rather than the power of being a dispenser of gifts, wisdom and time. In fact, as Pope Francis said in the same speech: “Shepherds [are needed] who do not pasture themselves but are able to step back, away from the center, to ‘decrease,’ in order to feed God’s family with Christ.” Part of this decreasing must surely be the letting go of the secular accretions to clerical life, things that previously indicated that “Father” was the most educated person in the neighborhood, or the largest landowner, or a professional with office hours, etc. Decreasing does mean a journey away from these things and these mindsets.

In sum, then, Francis is looking for a dialogue Church where the interaction respects the other person and engages them personally. This is the dialogue that was a constant part of Christ’s presence in the Gospels: “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain”(Address to U.S. Bishops, Sept. 23, 2015).

There is a real revolution taking place in the pontificate of Pope Francis!

FATHER BRAMWELL, O.M.I., an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, has taught theology for years at places like Ave Maria University and Franciscan University of Steubenville and was undergraduate dean at Catholic Distance University.