Pope Francis’s four years at the helm in Rome have been one long Lent, a time of conversion  — which involves both pain and joy — and of re-focussing on the Church’s primary purpose. The template for the transformation was designed in Latin America, and it is called “pastoral conversion.”

The idea is that when the Church  — not just its clergy but all its “missionary disciples” — learn how to be pastors to humanity as Jesus was, the churches will fill and the world will be converted.

The program needed to come from Latin America, because the capacity for self-renewal in Europe and the United States had been exhausted. The wealthy but declining Churches of the north needed to learn again how to pastor.

Its culture often sees Catholicism as sad and angry, something coercive and domineering, hurling rules at people and concerned with itself rather than with humanity.

That story is false, but it was true enough often enough to be hard to refute — and there was no shortage of clergy and bishops and cardinals to reinforce it.

In Latin America, on the other hand, the Church is seen very differently by the culture: as turned towards humanity, not against it; as a community of service, close to ordinary people, and their ally, concerned for their welfare and willing to expend themselves in their service. In short, a pastoral Church, as Vatican II sought.

Again, that story is not wholly true: there are plenty of counter-examples of clericalism and rigidity and even corruption. Yet it is mostly true, and true often enough for the cultural prejudice to be essentially sound.

Latin American theology and spirituality, in spite of deviations and resistance (often from Rome), has developed since the 1960s a powerful current of resistance to the arrogance of power and consumption in its “option for the poor.” This has given the Latin American Church an evangelizing credibility in proclaiming Jesus, who related firstly not to power groups but to their victims.

When the Latin American bishops gathered in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007 they boldly asserted a call to the Church to a “pastoral conversion” that meant moving from “a pastoral strategy of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary approach.” This would in turn require a “spiritual, pastoral and institutional conversion” inspired by Vatican II.

The electric currents that the Church of the northern hemisphere needed had to be released from the south, and they are still, through Francis, electrifying us — even if we have by now grown used to some of the shocks.

Getting close and concrete

Pastoral conversion was the call that Francis took up after his election in Evangelii Gaudium, and which has guided the decisions he has taken these past four years of reform. His papacy has been a “perennial activity of pastoral conversion and witness to mercy,” as he puts it in Mater et Misericordia, in which “what is central is not the law or legal justice, but the love of God, which is capable of looking into the heart of each person and seeing the deepest desire hidden there.”

It has meant a new Catholic populism, re-connecting the Church with the people of God through attention to the lives and experiences of ordinary people, using ordinary language and speaking directly to their concerns, rather than taking refuge in abstractions and idealized schemes.

It is a Church, in short, that seeks to be both “close” and “concrete” — traits the pope has himself embodied to a remarkable degree, in his communication and actions, transforming the papacy itself.

It is a Church of dialogue, in the sense that Vatican II meant it: rather than treating the world outside the Church as needing to be taught truths which the Church possesses, it is more about discovering what God has done and is doing in the life of people and their societies, while speaking out forcefully against what resists that presence.

It is a Church that seeks to follow “the logic of God” rather than “the logic of the doctors of the law,” as Francis put it to the cardinals in February 2015 — meaning less concerned with preserving the community from threats and more concerned with a direct encounter with and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the service of humanity that flows from that experience.

Pastoral conversion means a Church, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna told La Civiltà Cattolica, “that is not afraid to eat and drink with the prostitutes and the publicans.”

“We need a Church unafraid of going forth into [people’s] night,” Francis told the Brazilian bishops back in 2o13. “We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”

In his appointments of bishops and cardinals, Francis has made “pastorality” a key criterion, ending the custom of making a priest a bishop simply because he is an orthodox academic or canon lawyer. If he can’t walk with his people in their human realities, he is not suitable to lead the Church’s flock.

He has also abolished the custom of awarding red hats automatically to major sees, giving them instead to pastoral bishops on the periphery so that the voice of the poor is present in universal church governance. Francis has rigorously applied over these four years Yves Congar’s principle of true Church reform, that the periphery must be allowed to shape the center if Christ’s true face is to be revealed in its structures.

Addressing the U.S. bishops in Philadelphia in September 2015, Francis contrasted an attitude that deplored social ills and blamed contemporary society with the outlook of a pastor, who is asked “to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind the wounds of our time.”

Speaking of young people’s commitment-phobia, for example, he said that rather than “rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity” pastors should invite young people “to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family.”

Mercy doesn’t mean diluting the truth to make it more palatable, as so many of Francis’s critics believe; it means converting the Church to help people better live the truth. That means not taking refuge in abstractions, as if simply enunciating the truth will convert people, but encouraging the openness to grace that will enable them to live it.

“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life,” Francis observes in Amoris Laetitia. “We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden.”

Accompaniment, discernment, integration

Pastoral conversion is summed up in the three key words of Amoris: accompaniment, discernment, and integration. It implies a way of the Church treating the ‘world’ — not shouting at it, but serving it, teaching it, healing it.

Pastoral conversion requires a kerygmatic proclamation — the path of Jesus liberates, brings life, is the answer to the yearning of our hearts — rather than a moralistic one. Doctrine is not a moral code that must be obeyed, but the truth that flows from following Christ.

This also means making space in the Church for discernment, meaning an attentiveness to human realities and the sometimes limited capacities and choices people face. This, too, reflects an eminently Latin-American pastoral theology, shaped by the experience of ministering to the poor.

Amoris is full of such theology, especially where it enjoins pastors to apply the law keeping in mind the circumstances (psychological, historic, social) that may impede a person’s capacity to embrace the truth fully at that time. “We have to respond to people and help them in their journey to God, and to do so is not simply to apply a law,” as Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster says in a recent interview.

To evangelize is first to discover the seeds of the Gospel in the lives of others, and to water and nurture those seeds. “We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them,” says Francis in Amoris. Pastoral conversion is not about the triumph of an idea, but making room for the action of God.

This has meant a new emphasis on pastoral ministry as service. “The laity are a part of the holy, faithful people of God, and for this reason, the protagonists of the Church and the world, whom we’re called to serve and not by whom we’re to be served,” Francis wrote to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

The resistance to Francis has come, in the United States in particular, from those who are wedded to the concept of the Church as a cultural battler or a political lobby centered on good ideas and effective policies. But once the Church is seen as a political actor speaking from a place of what Francis calls “pastoral autocracy,” it loses credibility. Where it speaks, boldly, from its pastoral experience, society listens.

This has been for some the hardest part of this mortifying pontificate: the call to abandon the manners and mechanisms of power and privilege. It has been especially hard for many clergy to be lambasted for their self-importance  and authoritarianism, their rigidity and their immobility, their joylessness and their culture of self-entitlement — and just as hard for them to hear the pope describe himself as a sinner who believes in the “theology of failure.”

But Francis knows that the best way of bringing about conversion is to put people in the place of their victims. Priests (and curial officials) who object to the pope’s listing their sins must at least now understand better how many people feel about their clergy doing the same.

Francis is fierce in attacking clericalism because this is key to pastoral conversion. The shepherds represent Christ, and if they have their backs turned to the people they are an obstacle to Him.

Pastoral conversion of the curia

The pope is applying the same principles of pastoral conversion to the Vatican bureaucracy. By 2012-13, the Roman curia had become a serious obstacle to the Church’s mission, a barrier between the Bishop of Rome and the bishops of the world, rather than a bridge.

Francis has set in motion a process of reform whose fruits will be seen in a future pontificate, but which has already changed the curia so that it ceases to work independently from the pope or even against him. But he is avoiding the danger of shaping the curia in his own image by entrusting the long-term task of restructuring to his council of nine cardinals.

In the meantime, he has reduced the Vatican’s autonomy in a host of ways, allowing for a greater flow between Rome and the local Church.

Without firing lay staff but imposing a freeze (except where necessary) on new hires, he has shrunk the curia’s size and scope, and governed, in many ways, without the curia, instead giving bishops and cardinals a major role in the decisions that affect the universal Church, through the C9 (cardinals who are diocesans, not curiali), the synod of bishops, and the college of cardinals.

He has also reduced its production. What was under St John Paul II a torrent of documents pouring forth from Vatican departments every week has been reduced to a trickle. Decentralization and subsidiarity have restored to the local bishops their proper teaching function, applying universal doctrine in ways appropriate to the local context.

He has simplified and streamlined the dicasteries, merging different councils, and putting them on a more equal footing. There are now three ‘secretariats’ (for state, the economy and communications) instead of one, so that the secretary of state can no longer be a “vice-pope” and create a fiefdom in the curia.

He has also opened up Rome to outsiders and non-Italians, creating or changing the boards of the Vatican’s financial institutions and watch-bodies to include large components of lay people from across the world.

The financial reform — balancing the books, enabling Peter’s Pence to be spent mostly on charity, publishing audited accounts — is a work in progress, but no one believes the bad old days of financial scandals can come back now. The Vatican’s purpose — to facilitate the Church’s pastoral activity — has been restored.

Just as importantly, he has attacked the culture of self-entitlement that lies behind those scandals in a constant barrage against attachments to wealth, image and power, and all forms of “spiritual worldliness” — the use of the Church’s resources for personal gain.

Pastoral conversion is the new evangelization

Francis has often been accused in his four years of neglecting Europe, Catholicism’s traditional heartland, where the Church shows many signs of decay. Yet in speeches and addresses, he has addressed the decline by calling on the Church to put its faith not in the restoration of bygone eras or dazzling new structures but in pastoral conversion.

“We must stay among the people with the ardor of those who were the first to welcome the Gospel,” he told the German bishops. “And whenever we make the effort to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up.”

He offered the same advice to the Italian bishops: reform consists not in the umpteenth plan to reform structures, but “grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit — so that all will be possible with genius and creativity.”

Be pastors, he told them. “May nothing and no one take away the joy of being sustained by your people. As pastors, do not be preachers of complex doctrines, but proclaimers of Christ who dies and rose again for us. Focus on what is essential, on the kerygma. There is nothing more solid, profound and certain than this announcement. But may all God’s people be proclaimers of the Gospel — people and pastors.”

Francis insists he is not a reformer, and had no program of reform for the Church four years ago. But he did.

It was called pastoral conversion. It was designed in Latin America, and remains the core program of the pontificate. To the extent that it is effective — and, at least judging by the ferocious opposition, it is — history will judge Pope Francis.