ROME – Pope Francis Monday read Italian bishops the riot act Monday for failing to fully implement a revised marriage annulment procedure he rolled out in 2015, saying that after four years, most dioceses have not yet applied the new process.
“It is with regret that I note that the reform, after four years, remains far from being applied in the great majority of Italian dioceses,” the pope said during a May 20 speech to the Italian bishops’ conference.
Italy has the largest bishops’ conference in the world, and it’s generally seen as a pacesetter around the Catholic world because of its proximity to the Vatican. The pope traditionally holds the title “Primate of Italy”, and it’s the only conference in the world where the pope directly appoints its president.
Francis issued the streamlined annulment process in September 2015, and it went into effect December that year to coincide with the launch of the Jubilee of Mercy.
It was enacted with two motu proprio, or legal documents issued under the pope’s own authority, titled Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, a meek judge”), which handles modifications in the Latin Rite’s Code of Canon Law, and Mitis et misericors Iesus (“Jesus, meek and merciful”), which deals with changes for Eastern Catholic Churches.
Among other things, the new process gave a stronger role to the local bishop, dropped automatic appeals in obvious cases of annulment, and ensured that the process would be free of charge.
In his speech to Italian bishops, Francis called for the “full and immediate application” of the documents, saying the process should be fast, free and characterized by “closeness” to families in difficulty.
“Closeness to wounded families means that judgement, as much as possible, is in the local dioceses without delays and unnecessary prolongation,” he said, adding that this will require a “conversion of structures.”
“We cannot allow the economic interests of some lawyers or the interest in personal power of some judicial vicars (to slow down the process),” he said.
Taking place May 20-23 in Rome, the Italian bishops’ annual spring general assembly falls just before European Parliamentary elections beginning on Thursday. Migration is expected to be a key topic in both the elections and the bishops’ discussions, as the Church and Italian officials have gone head to head in recent months over Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salivni’s strict anti-migrant policies.
However, the pope did not touch on the issue during his opening speech, which instead was focused on three points, including the marriage annulment process, the importance of synodality and collegiality as the Church’s modus operandi, and the need for bishops to be close to their priests.
Quoting a 2017 document on synodality from the International Theological Commission, the main advisory body to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis indicated that synodality ought to be the broad principle for how the Church functions, forming a communion between local churches and the hierarchy, while collegiality is the way it manifests itself through the bishops and the pope.
Francis stressed the duty of bishops “to care for the good functioning of the dioceses,” saying this happens by going “to the base, from the base up.”
He also told the bishops that working for the unity of their local communities happens above all by fostering good relationships with their priests.
“Some bishops have a hard time making relationships with their clergy,” he said, pausing to emphasize the point that as bishops, “priests are our closest collaborators and brothers.”
Hierarchal communion in the Church “collapses,” he said, “when it is infected by any form of personal power or self-gratification.”
Francis also cautioned bishops not just to develop a relationship with priests who are nice or who adulate them, stressing that to be a good bishop means also reaching out to priests who are “mean” or “outspoken.”
Priests must be assured that they can rely on their bishop and turn to him for support, Francis said, telling the prelates that if they get a call from a priest, to call them back the next day at most, because that way “he knows that he has a father.”