Pope Francis and the Remaking of Modern Catholicism

03/12/2015 11:04 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

When we look at the words and deeds of Pope Francis since his papacy, it is obvious that he has surpassed the expectations of many. The Francis effect is now the new narrative of the Catholic Church with all the positive consequences of this for realizing the mission of Roman Catholicism in the world. Pope Francis has accomplished so much in so short a time that Elton John sees his papacy as a great miracle. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Elton John praises Pope Francis as 'a miracle of humility in an era of vanity.' Elton John calls Pope Francis his 'hero' because according to him Pope Francis is a compassionate, loving man who wants everybody to be included in the love of God. The famed singer concluded in the special Italian edition of Vanity Fair which had nominated Francis as did Time Magazine as the Person of the Year (2013) that His beacon of hope will bring more light than any advancement of science, because no drug has the power of love.

What is it that Pope Francis did to remake modern Catholicism? According to Posner and Kouzes there are five essential practices of an exemplary and transformative leader, namely: a leader models the way, encourages the heart, enables others to act; a leader must also embody a shared vision and must challenge the process and the status quo. On all five scores, Pope Francis has been immensely revolutionary and transformative. But Pope Francis stands out particularly in two ways as a beacon of light, a reformer and connector to people from across the spectrum of modern society: challenging the process -- by changing the old and unworkable ways of doing things at the Vatican which often were authoritarian, promoted careerism, rivalry, cronyism, favoritism and corruption; and in modeling the way -- living a credible and simple life style which reflects the way of life of the poor man of Galilee. Through his kind and direct non-judgmental speeches from the heart and through his genuine disposition of love and kindness to people, he has inspired many people and touched their hearts and souls more than many theological tracts and tomes.

By the time Pope Francis was elected on March 13, 2013, there was a general feeling that we were reaching the end of an era in the Catholic Church and that the Spirit was calling the Church to a new beginning. By the end of 2012 what was in the news about the church included revelation of papal secrets by the Butler, the publication of the details of some of these stolen documents which revealed that the Vatican was becoming a cesspool of corruption and cronyism. Some of these were contained in the book by the Italian journalist, Gianluigi Nuzzi appropriately titled, His Holiness: The Secret Files of Pope Benedict (Sua Santita: Le Carte Segrete di Benedetto XVI). In addition, there was the readmission of a Holocaust denying bishop into the church, the smelly heap of evidence of the corruption in the Vatican Bank, too much centralization of power in the hands of a few curial officials in Rome such that local bishops became like legates of Rome. The harm done to many people especially children through the poor handling of clerical sexual abuse, the marginalization of minorities and people on account of their sex, race, sexuality, gender, marital status etc were all some of the wounds of the church. There was also in the English speaking world deep pain and confusion in the liturgy and language of the Mass with the translation of the New Roman Missal into English. In addition, there were many incidents of disunity, rancor and infighting among bishops both at the Vatican and in national Episcopal conferences on who was right and who was wrong, whose teachings were close to the official faith and doctrinal position of Rome. The fight over the canons for orthodoxy was often perceived as driven more by the struggle for influence peddling rather than fidelity to the words and deeds left for the church by her founder, Jesus Christ. These internal wars within the church seriously undermined the message of the Gospel. It seemed that Roman Catholicism was also being drowned not only by these controversies but also by a few missteps and utterances of either the pope or his closest collaborators. There was a clear evidence that the cardinal electors following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI wanted a reforming pope who will change the direction of the church.

The Economist in its April 19th 2014 edition on "The Francis Effect" offers three key strategies which any CEO of a failing company could learn from how Pope Francis handled the church's problems since he took office from Benedict: first is concentrating on the core competence of the church which is serving the poor: Francis has refocused his organization on one mission: helping the poor. "One of the first decisions was to forsake the papal apartments in favor of a boarding house which he shares with 50 other priests and sundry visitors. He took the name of a saint who is famous for looking after the poor and animals. He washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates of a juvenile detention center. He got rid of the fur-trimmed velvet capes that popes have worn since the Renaissance, swapped Benedict's red shoes for plain black ones and ignored his fully loaded Mercedes in favor of a battered Ford...This poor first strategy is also aimed squarely at emerging markets, where the potential growth is greatest but competition fiercest." The other approach of Pope Francis was brand repositioning by changing the way the message is communicated; he has prioritized deeds over words, but when he uses words they are so poignant and so loaded with meaning not simply because of their pithy and cryptic nature but because they are embodied and sacramentalized through his actions. The third strategy is restructuring the church (reforming the Vatican bank, creating the G8, overhauling the procedures for the Synod of Bishops making it more participatory, shaking up the membership of the Vatican department that picks bishops, naming more Cardinals from the ends of the earth against the practice of populating that elite body with Italians and other Europeans, and trimming the tug of careerism in the church by restricting the use of the title of 'monsignor' to priests over the age of 65, publicly rebuking the curial cardinals, archbishops, priests and staff on their spiritual diseases which he warned were undermining the mission of God) (see John Allen, Against the Tide, 8-9).

When I left my home country Nigeria 13 years ago to study in Rome, my father made one request of me: please when you return for holidays from Rome, please bring me Holy Water from the fountain at St Peter's square. Like many ordinary Catholics, he does not want to be bordered with the politics or battles in Rome, or with ideological or dogmatic Catholicism, but only the spiritual connection with Rome, a deeper relation with God and the 'grace of greater things', and the communion with world Christianity and men and women of goodwill mediated through this ancient institution. For many Catholics today, there is still that idyllic image of Catholicism as a bastion of spiritual strength, a reliable source for creedal certainty in a world ideologically awash with diverse theological, moral and spiritual standpoints. Most Catholics take pride in their church -- for better or for worse -- as the gold standard of Christian orthodoxy. However, Catholicism for those outside of it, and more so for those inside of it, remains a cultural heritage which can never be contained in one vessel, historically, theologically, spiritually, and otherwise. Catholicism is much more than a single narrative because it is like a deep ocean, with many tributaries, canalizing through different channels. There should be a place for everyone in this family. Sadly, the antinomies of inclusion and exclusion which have often been legitimated by some versions of a presumed Catholic orthodoxy and fidelity continue to be a challenge to Catholics. Whatever perspectives one admits in the cultural discourse in Catholicism today, it seems that the times seem appropriate for the emergence of new prophets. Such men and women who will lift our gaze beyond the imprisoning certainties about the things we do not know; or the pride of an ecclesial mindset which seeks to provide definitive answers to indefinite questions and mysteries which reveal to us what it means to be human in an infinitely boundless cosmos.

The Catholic challenge today is for a new Catholic imagination and creative appropriation of the treasures of the Church to meet the challenges of the times. This is the time of prophets who are like sentinels on the mountain top pointing the church and the world to new paths which may never have been followed before. I think Pope Francis is such a prophet. This is because he is showing that it is possible for Catholicism to find within her bosom a new way of being church, and new paths for meeting the challenges of today in fidelity to the God of surprises and renewal. Many discerning Catholics fear, however, that the forces of mono-cultural Catholicism may be too strong for new prophetic witnesses to help find new pathways for the Church. These Catholics worry that as Pope Francis consolidates on the reforms which he has started that there will be a push back by the more conservative wing of the church's leadership. Others fear that Pope Francis's changes may be rejected by his successor since he has not changed any article in the Canon Law or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, those foundational documents which govern the church. So there is significant unease among both progressives and conservatives in the Catholic Church especially with the forthcoming Synod on the Family in October and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September. So the question remains: Can Francis radically and permanently remake Catholicism? What is the future of Catholicism beyond Francis? Is it not too much or even too precarious to expect the reform of a 1.1 billion strong church to rest on the weak shoulders of an aging 78 year old pope? Is Catholicism going to be lost as many people know it as a result of the papacy of Francis?

I think that the cultural bereavement of many Catholics should not simply be of a doctrinal and dogmatic fortress which may wither with the reforms being introduced by Pope Francis. I think what should be grieved is the loss of the renewing fire of the Spirit which will be smothered if the Church does not open herself to the gift of prophecy from the Spirit whose wind blows wherever and whenever she pleases. Faith entails among other things, stepping into uncharted territory in humble obedience to the God whose plans are better and bigger than our humanly constructed approximation of divine revelation in our claims, doctrines, and laws.