Over the last month, I’ve had the chance to interact with a fairly wide cross-section of Catholic clergy from around the world. I spent two weeks in Krakow, Poland, covering World Youth Day, then several days in Toronto at the annual Knights of Columbus convention, and last week I was in Santa Barbara, California, spending some time with Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron and his crew.
(If you don’t know, Barron and his “Word on Fire” ministry is generally regarded as one of the most effective forms of evangelization for the Catholic Church in the American media universe. In September 2015, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for the sprawling Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)
One thing about Catholicism that’s sometimes a little hard for the outside world to understand is that although politics are certainly part of the Church’s life, that’s hardly all there is. Catholics, perhaps clergy in particular, also have a spiritual lens for assessing the vicissitudes of life, including the leadership of whoever the pope happens to be at a given moment.
Naturally, Catholics have their own personal political outlooks, which inevitably shape how they see papal pronouncements or gestures. Most, however, also believe that a pope is there because God wanted him to be in charge, and thus they try, within the limits of their own instincts and worldviews, to listen carefully and to follow his lead.
As I met clergy over the last month – from the States, from Europe, from Australia and the U.K., from Africa and Asia and Latin America, and from the Middle East — sooner or later, I’d ask the following question: “What impact is Pope Francis having on you?”
Many priests told me they see Francis as a confirmation of what they were already trying to do, in terms of being pastors close to the experiences of their people, and they rejoice that he’s touching the hearts of the world and appealing to those distant from the faith. For them, this is what Catholicism is supposed to be.
Enthusiasm is often greatest among older priests, those most attached to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) –a cohort, by the way, that doesn’t use social media as much and often tends to be a bit quieter about their opinions, but that doesn’t make their sense of things any less real.
For other clergy, especially younger priests and bishops who might tend to self-identify as a “John Paul II” or “Benedict XVI’ man, Francis can be a bit of a shock to the system. (That’s despite the fact that Francis has forcefully rejected attempts to set him in opposition to either of his predecessors.)
Virtually all, however, said that in some form they’re trying to figure out what the pope wants and, as best they can, to deliver it.
Here’s what I heard, over and over again, in terms of what Catholic clergy today believe the pope is pushing them to do.
First, the most common word I heard was this: “Presence.” They’ve gotten the memo that Francis doesn’t want his clergy to be bureaucrats, but rather pastors, and so virtually everyone I met said they’re conscious of trying to be more present to people in the circumstances of their everyday lives.
One element of the “Francis effect,” therefore, seems to be encouraging Church leaders to get out of the office – to spend more time in parishes, in schools, in hospitals, in soup kitchens and homeless shelters and pregnancy crisis centers, in the countless other ministries of the Church, interacting with ordinary people and getting a better read of what their concerns and experiences really are.
Here’s the second word I heard most often: “Mercy.” Clergy seem to have grasped that they’re supposed to be projecting a merciful, compassionate face for the Church.
What that means in concrete situations varies depending on the individual. Whether it implies, for instance, making it easier for a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic to receive Communion, remains a matter of active debate.
In general, however, the widespread impression is that Francis wants the mercy of God, and of the Catholic Church, to be just as palpable and tangible as judgment.
Third, I heard the word “service.”
Clergy told me that they’re hearing the pope press them to be sure that the local Church is on the front lines of responding to the needs of the suffering and marginalized, whether that means opening parishes to immigrant families, ratcheting up efforts to help the poor and homeless in their community, struggling even harder to keep schools afloat in low-income and minority areas, and so on.
That’s not in any way a novelty, since the Church has always been committed to service, especially of the poor and abandoned. Clergy, however, seem to be hearing the pope say that those efforts need to be redoubled against the backdrop of an increasingly divided and violent world, gripped by what the pontiff has called a “piecemeal Third World War.”
Is presence, mercy and service the totality of Francis’s agenda?
Perhaps not, but in terms of basic take-aways for the more than 400,000 Catholic priests of the world and more than 5,000 bishops, one arguably could do a lot worse.