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Pope Francis leads in evangelical imagination

One year on: From the moment Pope Francis, dressed simply in a white cassock, stepped out on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time and bowed on March 13, 2013, he signalled his pontificate would bring some style differences to the papacy. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

From the moment Pope Francis, dressed simply in a white cassock, stepped out on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time and bowed on March 13, 2013, he signalled his pontificate would bring some style differences to the papacy. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring

By Archbishop Mark Coleridge

POPE Francis has just completed two years in office and what a two years they have been.

From the moment he appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s, he has shown himself to be a pope of surprises.

Even to the people of his native Argentina, he’s been a surprise.

An Argentinian bishop I met in Rio at World Youth Day said to me of the Pope, “He wasn’t like this in Buenos Aires. He never smiled in public; now he can’t stop smiling. He never gave interviews; now he can’t stop giving interviews.”

I mentioned this to Anglican Archbishop Phillip Aspinall who told me a story of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, being interviewed for the job.

One of the interviewers asked Welby the brilliant question, “If you were to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, would you experience it as an imprisonment or a liberation?” To which Welby replied after a moment’s thought, “I think a liberation”.

That’s the sense you have of Pope Francis – that for him, amazingly, election to the papacy has been not an imprisonment but a liberation.

Like Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis seems to have an endless ability to pull rabbits from the hat. Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more in the hat, out pops another rabbit.

The latest has been the Jubilee of Mercy which will begin towards the end of this year.

Clearly this is connected to the Synod on the family which will be held in Rome in October.

Pope Francis has shifted the Synod from event to process, making it more like what happened in the Second Vatican Council where much of the fermentation went out between the sessions rather than during them.

First we had the preparation for the first Synod last October; then we had the first Synod itself; now we have the journey from one Synod to another.

The journey that we are on clearly won’t finish once the Synod ends on October 25.

The question then is, “What comes next on the journey?”, and part of the answer for the Pope is the Jubilee of Mercy.

I’m not sure what exactly the jubilee will bring, but I am sure that it will flow from the Synod and seek to give flesh to some of its proposals.

It will be fascinating to see how that pans out in detail.

We need to ask, even now, what it might mean here in Australia and in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Before the Pope announced the Jubilee of Mercy, I had been asking myself how we might respond to the Synod at the local level beyond next October, how we might continue the journey together in this part of the world.

One thought I’ve had is that, beyond the Synod, we might ask whether, in the not too distant future, the time might be right for a national synod or assembly of some kind, especially with the Royal Commission due to complete its work in 2017.

There may be a deep and powerful convergence between the aftermath of the Synod and the aftermath of the Royal Commission; and that may mean that it’s time for a national synod or assembly, which we haven’t had in this country since 1937.

The Jubilee of Mercy may also allow us to have a new look at the Sacrament of Penance, which is passing through a time of crisis.

One of the difficulties of the sacrament is its name. We used to call it Confession, and often still do.

Officially, it’s often known as the Sacrament of Penance, but sometimes and more recently as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“Reconciliation” has the advantage of being more positive and of focusing on what God does rather than what we do.

But it’s a long and awkward word in an English-speaking mouth, which is why it’s sometimes abbreviated, appallingly, as “reco”.

I think it should be known as the Sacrament of Mercy. And a renewed catechesis of the sacrament will need to focus on the celebration of infinite mercy in an often merciless world.

That’s the heart of the Gospel; and I can think of nothing which people – young and old – need more and of nothing which the Church is better equipped – by Christ – to offer.

We’ll need not only a renewed catechesis of the sacrament but also new strategies that flow from it.

Both will require some evangelical imagination of the kind Pope Francis has demonstrated so surprisingly and refreshingly through his time as pope.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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