06/26/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

A Sign of Things to Come?

Last week, Pope Francis made a small, but I think significant, change in three of the Catholic eucharistic prayers, or what is generally known as the "Mass." What he did was to add the name of Saint Joseph after that of the Virgin Mary in the list of saints just before the mention of the apostles. In other words, what Pope Francis has done is to repeat something that Pope John XXIII did in 1962, about three years after he called for a Second Vatican Council.

At the time that Pope John made that small addition, some saw it as simply a reflection of the pope's personal devotion. Others, back in those days of the cold war, saw it as a gesture of recognition of the importance of ordinary working people, whom communism claimed to champion. (Back in 1955, Pope Pius XII had proclaimed May 1st, the great day for communist rallies and parades, as a new annual church day of celebration, that of "St. Joseph the Worker.") But somehow, this addition to the venerable Roman "canon" or eucharistic prayer, did not make it into the three additional eucharistic prayers that were added to the "Missal" or "Sacramentary" following the Council. So, on the surface, it would seem that all that Pope Francis has done is to correct an oversight, and perhaps in doing so, lay new emphasis on his often-voiced concern for plight of the poor and the stability of family life, and thus the indispensable need for greater economic justice.

However, I believe that there is something else at stake. When Pope John called for that council to be held, it had been nearly ninety years since the last one, this despite the resolution passed at the Council of Constance, back in 1417, which decreed that general councils were to be "frequently" held, indeed, if possible, every decade. This coming October, it will have been fifty years since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. So again, we are long overdue, particularly in light of the fact that it is widely acknowledged that while Vatican II was intended, in addition to bringing the Church more up-to-date, to solve some of the problems created by the Vatican I with its proclamation of papal primacy and infallibility. Instead, Vatican II, in its attempt to reclaim the more ancient practice of episcopal collegiality, seems to have only succeeded in intensifying the tension between the pope and his Vatican bureaucracy and the rest of the world's bishops. In other words, even if we disregard the every-decade ideal set by the Council of Constance, it is probably safe to say that we are twenty to thirty years behind schedule. Indeed, in 1995, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter regarding ecumenism ("Ut unum sint") admitted that the papacy, as it presently exists, remains the primary obstacle to the reunion of Christianity and invited the world's theologians and bishops to find ways to address this issue.

It is my guess, and my prayer as well, that Pope Francis, with his invocation of St. Joseph, as well as his recent appointment of eight cardinals from major geographic regions around the world as his special advisers -- along with one more representing the Vatican -- is about to put the world's bishops to work on solving this problem. If so, it will require real work and even sacrifice. Cherished and long-standing privileges will have to be abandoned, but as retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn, who wrote a whole book on the subject in response to Pope John Paul's challenge has said:

"If we are serious about the goal of unity, we must be serious about the cost of unity" and that, in the face of that cost, the ultimate question that all of us must ask ourselves is "What is the will of God?"