ROME – When assessing the progress of reform to date under Pope Francis, it’s easy to get bogged down in particulars, such as who heads this or that Vatican department or the latest papal moves on Vatican finances. Two cardinals speaking at a conference in Rome this week, however, urged clergy and faithful to look past such details and to focus on the bigger picture.
Italian Cardinals Fernando Filoni, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and Gianfranco Ravasi, who leads the Vatican’s Council for Culture, spoke on the day that marked the fifth anniversary of Francis’s election to the papacy.
Addressing the conference titled “Reforms in the Church, Reform of the Church,” taking place at the Vatican’s Urbaniana University March 13-15, Filoni emphasized the importance of a missionary Church.
“In essence, this meeting marks the determination of Pope Francis, by echoing its courage and passion, to make the ‘reform of the missionary Church that goes out’ concrete,” he told a packed auditorium. Filoni defined this as an “original and meaningful” expression, which the pope presented initially in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium as the primary condition to orient the Church toward a new evangelizing spirit.
Filoni emphasized that Francis does not understand reform in and of the Church as giving up the established elements of its tradition, or allowing it to be permeated by the “changing and contrasting winds” of secularism or relativism, which according to the prelate are taking over both the “real world” and the “world of the web.”
Instead, he said, Francis understands reform “as the effective missionary transformation of the Church,” calling it “the ‘reform of the Church’ that generates ‘reforms in the Church’.”
According to Filoni, the universal evangelizing mission of Christianity is made concrete by Jesus’ call to “go everywhere” and to all peoples in light of the Holy Spirit and “in dialogue with anyone.”
The call to dialogue was picked up by Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who made the need for the Church to intersect with society, technology and innovation a primary focus for reform, during his talk at the Roman event.
According to Ravasi, the concept of reform in the structural sense cannot be examined without considering a global vision of humanity, hence “it’s legitimate and important to have a social and cultural reflection” before moving to a more specific analysis.
Ravasi pointed to the fact that the term “culture” was used up to 91 times in the official documents of the Second Vatican Council, reflecting the fact that “insertion in culture is structural to Christianity.” He added that the entire Bible shows examples of “uninterrupted inculturation,” especially represented by the figure of Jesus, whose historical existence was deeply immersed into the cultural fabric of his time.
To approach the topic of reform, Ravasi indicated two different approaches: The first is “exquisitely transcendent,” and by closing its eyes to the world tries to go beyond history, space and time; the second is the Christian version, which is “profoundly rooted within various societies and in multiples cultures.”
According to the cardinal, Christianity, “more than other religions,” is engaged in the here-and-now of the world. To explain this, he drew from the English writer, poet and philosopher G.K. Chesterton who once noted how while most Asian iconography shows people and deities with their eyes closed, in meditative serenity, Christian iconography is characterized by saints with eyes wide open.
Being engaged with the world “makes the Church more prophetic and not only juridical and institutional,” Ravasi said, and allows it “to enter into dialogue with societal entities without wanting to determine or dominate them, but by offering the contribution of its moral and spiritual vision.”
While media outlets, clergy and laity are busy looking at the various failures and successes of Vatican reform, Ravasi highlighted some of the important issues “in the modern secular square” that are challenging the Church and calling for its attention.
Concerning science and technology, the Vatican’s culture czar listed the ethical and moral issues raised by recent developments in the realms of genetics, neurosciences and Artificial Intelligence or AI.
When it comes to the Internet or social media, which has “revolutionized our way of being, thinking and communicating,” Ravasi painted a reality which, in his view, has especially impacted youth who are most in need of guidance by the Church.
Social media “is a cold network of virtual relations, where reality evaporates, categories are mixed, creating a shapeless informational and narrative swamp from which mostly excesses, jolts, explosions and major bubbles emerge,” the cardinal said.
He also warned of the rampant diffusion of fake news and of digital gatekeepers, such as Google and Facebook, who have a significant say on what people see and believe.
“Before such a problematic horizon, strong is the temptation to be discouraged and have a resigned or submissive attitude, convinced of the unstoppable nature of such a process destined to create a new human standard,” Ravasi said. “Surely, it’s not Christian to have the disenchanted attitude of those who lock themselves in their little ancient world, satisfied of following the rules of the past, deprecating the degenerations of the present era.”
He concluded by quoting the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul dreams of a man calling him to “come down” to Macedonia. According to Ravasi, the use of the words “come down,” or diabás in Greek, shows a call “to meet humanity in its concrete identity, getting your hands and feet dirty, not being afraid to reach the slums of the peripheries and to be a witness to a Gospel that goes outside the protected spiritual oasis of the temple.”