Head friar talks reform of the order, Church

Who would have thought that a long-haired, guitar-playing Indiana lad, Michael Perry, would later become head of the Franciscans (Friars Minor) worldwide? Or that when he did so, in 2014, he would find their General Curia on the verge of a disastrous financial crash?

Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Father Perry about the state of the order and the state of Church under Pope Francis.

Our Sunday Visitor: Can you explain the financial situation of the Friars Minor when you became minister general of the order?

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Father Perry

Father Michael Perry, OFM: Bad investments, advised by lay specialists and some friars who believed they would bring huge returns, created conditions for a financial meltdown that threatened the life and work of the General Curia and its service to the whole order. The first step was to admit there had been questionable investment practices and there was need for a total revision of financial control systems.

The second step was to communicate the financial situation to all members of the order. The third step reduced expenditures in the General Curia and all houses and programs dependent on our financing; we cut our Curia budget by 27 percent. We now tell all the friars to undertake a serious revision of the values and methods guiding the collection, management and spending of resources that the people of God provide and for which we must give full accounting. After our failure, God has blessed us with many benefactors who have helped us reduce our external obligations by over 85 percent in less than three years. Truth does set people free!

OSV: What renovation is taking place?

Father Perry: Revitalization and restructuring are taking place in the Friars Minor and the other Franciscan orders — the Conventuals and the Capuchins. Revitalization of life helps Franciscans return to those elements of our spiritual life that are absolutely essential. This will help us face the challenges coming at humanity, the Church and us from the future — the new horizons and peripheries for evangelization (developments in biotechnology, gene therapy, cloning, artificial intelligence, the risk to the planet and the search for new planets and galaxies where humanity might need to construct human communities, etc.).

Restructuring is a response to changing situations of growth or decline of vocations. In recent years in Germany, four provinces became one new province; in Spain six provinces and one foundation became one new province; in the United States six of the seven current provinces will vote [in 2018] on whether to unite in one new province.

But we also are creating new provinces, especially in Africa and Asia, where we are experiencing tremendous growth. In the Democratic Republic of Congo [where Father Perry was a missionary for a decade] we recently created a second province to accommodate for the growth and the geographical expanse of the region. In West Papua, a new province was created in September 2017.

OSV: You’ve been in Rome for eight years. What have you learned?

Father Perry: One of the first things that I’ve learned is that the old fear that Rome and the Vatican endanger faith is false. This hasn’t been my experience. Quite the contrary. God remains firmly in control of the Church despite human failures, institutional failures — and there are many as we’ve painfully discovered in the U.S. and the world (sex abuse scandal, financial scandal, of which Franciscans are now experts, divisions over recent documents prepared by Pope Francis, even the debates over Amoris Laetitia). Still, God’s Spirit is working in the midst of our human weaknesses.  

A second thing I’ve learned is that the Vatican serves primarily as the role of an organizing and unifying unit of a global Church. The spiritual life of the Church thrives in each singular local community of believers, which takes many forms. Rome has always sought a balance between serving as a spiritual coordinating unit, helping to ensure coherence and authentic expression of the Faith while encouraging the creative embodiment of the full Body of Christ in different regions worldwide.

A third thing I’m learning is that the Church is capable of change. Pope Francis has called attention to this charismatic dimension of the Church’s life, and the need to keep the doors of the institution open to diversity, even embracing contradictions of all types (divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexuals who are full members of the Church, those who no longer feel as though the Church has anything relevant to say to their lives), being willing to take the way of the humble Christ as found in the Letter to the Philippians. So, too, the Church is called to follow with humility, acknowledging that she does not yet possess all awareness of the full truth.

OSV: What has the Vatican still to learn about U.S. Catholics?

Father Perry: The Holy Father’s visit to the U.S. had a tremendous impact on his perspective about American life — and the Church in the U.S., in particular. The pope recognizes the historical experience of American Catholicism on the development of the U.S. ethos. There are many positive consequences, but one which struck me was his sensitivity to the Native Americans who participated in the canonization of Father Junipero Serra [in September 201]. He met with a delegation of Native Americans from California to hear about their suffering. The historical role of the Church has not always been positive for the Native American community in general and for Native American Catholics in particular. It was indicated that the institutional Church must be willing to take a deep breath, listen attentively to the cries of those groups in the U.S. (including African-Americans) who have suffered deeply, and prepare for ongoing dialogue and, where necessary, make changes to practices that perpetuate exclusion (and racism).

OSV: What are the pope’s greatest difficulties?

Father Perry: Pope Francis faces many challenges, but I believe three are central. Pope Francis is not as radical as some people fear. He has not dramatically challenged any of the traditional teachings of the Church. Rather, he has challenged all members of the Church to reflect on these values in the light of the current state of humanity and the planet (Laudato Si’, Evangelii Gaudium, Amoris Laetitia). In the case of his encyclical on integral ecology, Laudato Si’, his fundamental arguments are derived from the traditions of the Church.

In his section on the social implications of the Gospel in Evangelii Gaudium, his fundamental argument is a re-actualization of the basic biblical principle of “love of God and love of neighbor.”

And in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis has attempted to negotiate the critical space between the call to live faithfully the precepts of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, while confronting human beings who are on the road toward a greater holiness but who, nonetheless, are sinners who need to be accompanied. Part of this accompaniment focuses on creating conditions so that those who are not living fully the demands of the Gospel and of the Church might have access to the very tools — spiritual, social, moral — that the Church offers. In this way, Pope Francis does not challenge the traditional teaching of the Church but rather proposes a pastoral strategy. His attention to the reality of human frailty and sin allows him to see the possibility of grace and conversion in the midst of what might otherwise appear to be less than faithful, and therefore to be condemned or otherwise quarantined. Francis’ solution is an authentic interpretation of the Church’s tradition.

A second challenge is the reform of the institutional Church, and more specifically the Roman curia. His efforts to promote greater transparency in economic matters has been met with support, frustration and obstruction. The pope himself has expressed his frustration; there is tremendous resistance in the Church, and even in religious/consecrated life, because for us to accept greater transparency means that we must allow ourselves to be accountable to others — we lose exclusive control over the economic areas of our lives.

A third challenge confronting Pope Francis derives from the state of affairs in the world — first and foremost a crisis of human identity and with it a crisis of human community. Who are we, and who are we becoming? Now there is a strong focus on the subjectivity of all things which makes my reality as true as your reality.

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Coupled with this is the crisis of human trust, the condition sine qua non for constructing human societies capable of proposing community/fraternity as a guiding principle. Other challenges to human identity and community include the ongoing threat to vulnerable peoples, peace and reconciliation, and the care for our wounded and endangered planet (environment). Pope Francis is accused of trying to impose communist or socialist structures and values that, according to his critics, undermine the very bedrock of Western civilization, Christianity and also of a set of privileges for the rich that continue to aggravate and worsen the plight of God’s poor, and of the planet. But Laudato Si’ speaks of the urgency of preparing, with a spirit of grace, peace and joy, a more just world.

Desmond O’Grady writes from Rome.