Again this week, I caught myself thinking that I was writing a bit too much about Pope Francis and that I should move on to some other topics, several of which have been floating around in my head, waiting patiently for their turn. It seems that each week, though, or even each day, this pope does something to surprise us, and it is often an event or announcement so noteworthy that I am again compelled to discuss it on this blog.
It is reassuring to see that I am not the only one “obsessed” with the stories of change within the Catholic Church, and with the man who is driving the change. This week, the influential American magazine Time chose Francis as “man of the year”, an honor reserved for a person who has influenced the world of 2013 in the most consequential of ways. In its statement, the magazine called him “a new voice of conscience”, who in less than nine months has come from nowhere to preside over a global conversation about poverty and inequality. According to the editors, this remarkable man “is poised to transform a place that measures change by the century.”
In any case, I decided to continue this discussion of the pope and his stories of inclusion. After this week, though, I plan to alternate my writing on Francis and his stories of change with some other topics, that is to say, probably one week on and one week off. But this is only a plan, and since this pope seems to surprise us continuously, I reserve the right to continue the focus on him if and when his remarkable story warrants attention.
As we wrote here last time, Pope Francis has done a remarkable job of telling his stories of change and of engaging church officials in a new form of governance. These stories of change and of inclusion began inside—with the bishops, the key reporting and administrative structures, and some new approaches to management. Quickly, though, Pope Francis also began reaching out to the Catholic masses.
In fact, one recent surprise to most observers was his decision to go directly to his constituents, taking the novel step of asking common people to express their opinions on some of the important issues of our time. When this initiative was announced, NBC News reported: “Pope Francis is shaking things up again. The pontiff with a penchant for surprises is making new waves by launching a survey of his flock on issues facing modern families — from gay marriage to divorce. Very specific questions are being sent to parishes around the globe in preparation for next year’s synod of bishops, a grassroots effort that experts say is unprecedented.”
Here are some examples of the questions asked:
“Do the divorced and remarried feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?”
“In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with.”
“What pastoral attention can be given to people who live in these types of [same-sex] unions?”
“In the case of unions of persons of the same sex who have adopted children, what can be done pastorally in light of transmitting the faith?”
This type of polling is indeed extraordinary in two ways. First, it seeks input from rank-and-file Roman Catholics on a scale that the church has never seen before. And second, it addresses areas that have been considered too controversial, even off-limits, before Francis entered the scene.
Of course, Pope Francis has shown consistently that he seeks to be caring and connected. Increasingly these days, he is demonstrating his desire to reestablish a dialogue with all those who had been excluded: the poor and disadvantaged, of course, but also those marginalized by divorce or sexual orientation. In addition, the pope continues to embody the story of a simple and humble man who recognizes that the church will only be relevant if it can accept the realities of modern life.
While nothing formal in church doctrine or practice has changed to this point, Francis seems to be laying the groundwork. Surveys such as the one described here are further evidence of his skill at crafting the stories of inclusion that give people at all levels a sense of participation and engagement. I continue to believe that it will be exceedingly interesting to watch these stories unfold.