Last February, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he suddenly resigned from the papacy. The announcement came in Latin—a language now spoken by no-one and understood by few— during an ordinary meeting. An Italian journalist who heard the words, translated it quickly and, not believing her own work, looked for a confirmation from the Vatican’s spokesperson. There was no doubt, Pope Benedict had said he would resign in a couple of weeks and leave the Vatican. He did so, mentioning his increasing inability to cope with the work and the speed of changes in the world. He was the first pope to resign after the famous “great refusal”, as Dante Alighieri wrote in the Divina Commedia, of Pope Celestino V in 1294. The Pope’s resignation opened many discussions about everything from his right to do so to who the next pope would be. Most media focused on the Pope’s physical weakness or the difficulty of being the leader of a world religion in today’s world. Few, however, realized the real scope of the papacy today. The following dossier offers an in-depth look at the most important challenges the Church is facing today. At the news of the resignation, many started asking if this was a signal for a renewed leadership in the Church. Pope Benedict said that he felt unable to face the speed of changes, the many challenges, the new areas where the Church is asked to intervene; this while his strength was diminishing due to age and ailments. What the Pope was saying is that leadership requires many skills, and the leadership of the Church is even more challenging. The Pope is a spiritual leader, but also an administrator and a political figure. To be able to adapt to all these roles is not easy. Besides, today the world is highly specialized. Each area of knowledge requires competence and constant updating. The Church is also present all over the world, and new questions about Church life come in every day. No-one is capable of handling all these instances alone.
LAYPEOPLE AND BISHOPS
True, the Pope has many people working for him, preparing speeches and evaluating reports. Still, he remains in charge of the overall running of
the Church. It was not always like that. Until the 19th century, the Church was less centralized. Many decisions were delegated to local Churches. Distances and the difficulty of communication made it almost mandatory that the Vatican intervened only on major decisions. Today’s easiness of communication and the ever more centralized role of the Vatican make it harder to follow and resolve all questions. The problem is not new. Cardinal Martini, then Archbishop of Milan—the world’s largest diocese—realized it long ago and made some proposals. At the Synod of Bishops in 1999, he envisioned a council and a form of government of the Catholic Church that would be an expression of collegiality. Regarding the role of the pope, Card. Martini expressed the view that he could be helped in his ministry by “a collegial and authoritative sharing of responsibility among all the bishops, a council which could support the pope’s decision-making process”. What the cardinal was referring to is a permanent council of relevant bishops that could advise the pope, but also take on some of the responsibilities he has to shoulder. This would be a major shift in the way Church leadership is exercised. Today, the Church is run from the Vatican. The work is divided amongst different offices of the Roman Curia, each headed by a cardinal. If Martini’s proposal were to be taken into consideration, a new council would have to be approved and placed above the offices of the Curia. Bishops and, possibly, lay people called to this council would come from all over the world and use their particular expertise in different areas of Church life and society. This proposal was a dream in 1999, and still remains as such. Yet, it is interesting that Pope Benedict’s resignation is now focusing the attention on how a pope can really manage the Church in all its complexity without the sound advice of people who have first-hand experience and the proper competence in different matters. The question of leadership brings up the issue of lay involvement in running the Church.
In a globalized world, where communication plays a large role, the Church needs specialized men and women capable of tackling issues from different points of view. Lay people do have the qualities and competence needed to support the work of the Church, at local and global level. The challenge will be how to choose these qualities and integrate them in the leadership of the Catholic Church. One should never forget that lay people are the greatest majority within the Church, while today they have the tiniest voice on Church matters. Yet, the question of leadership goes beyond the integration of lay personnel. It is also a matter of how bishops are chosen. At the moment, the Church follows a well-oiled process of naming candidates and then vetting the most suitable person. This is done through interviews and questionnaires addressed to those who have relevant information. Perhaps, it would be good to review the qualities deemed necessary to become bishops, i.e. to have a good formation in theology and biblical studies and highlighting the openness to work together with local pastoral agents. UNITY IN DIVERSITY If leadership is a great challenge that the Catholic Church will face in the years to come, a second realisation is no less important. Catholic means universal, and never before has the Church been as universal as now. Today, there are Catholic dioceses everywhere on the planet. There are still many people who have not received adequate evangelization, and there are still many who have not heard Jesus’ teaching. At the same time, we can claim that never before has the Church welcomed so many representatives of different ethnic groups into the fold. This diversity, however, does not always translate into a multiplicity of ways of living the faith. In a way, the Church is diversified. It is enough to think of the many Eastern Rites: Catholic communities that have a different way of celebrating the sacraments and have a different set of religious laws regulating their life. Some examples of these Churches are the Maronite, the SiroMalabar and the Armenian. Yet, these local Churches are usually small groups and have limited scope in their outreach. The great majority of the Church belongs to the Latin Rite. This is the result of missionary effort, which was mainly the preoccupation of Latin Catholic missionaries. Missionaries left Europe to bring the Good News around the world, and they brought with them the traditions and uses of their lands. This is why today we find in Africa, Oceania, Latin America and Asia, local Churches that resemble the mother Churches of Europe. Much has been done in the past years to incarnate the Church in the local cultures. There is still much more to do. The challenge that the Church faces is that of intercultural development. Pope Paul VI spoke of unity in diversity, i.e. the need to be united in the faith in Christ, but able to express that same faith in different ways. Fifty years after the Vatican II Council, we are still far from adequately implementing the vision expressed by Pope Paul VI. Many local Churches promoted changes in the liturgical settings. Liturgy was chosen because it involves all, it is simpler to adapt and gives a visual sense of change. In reality, liturgy is also a minefield. In fact, it is not so simple to modify the structure of the celebration of sacraments, keeping intact the meaning behind words and actions. At the same time, by adding traditional dances and instruments, the liturgy does not automatically become ‘inculturated’. Real inculturation needs a conscientious process of understanding the faith and re-expressing it within the parameters of a given culture (see side story below). If liturgy could be the public area where inculturation becomes visible, doctrine should be the most important sector of attention. It is important that the teaching of the Church becomes available in a shape and content understandable by people in their own culture.
THE SYNODS’ ROLE
One of the instruments of doing this is the Synod of Bishops. The synods are a novelty brought about by Vatican II. The whole Church is involved in preparing the synod. I remember that the first synod dedicated to Africa (1994) was preceded by a long work of consultation with small Christian communities, parishes, and Catholic institutions throughout the continent. Bishops and lay people participated in the sessions, and later on a document was drawn up to clarify the result of this consultation. So far, synods have been celebrated in Rome, and the Vatican machinery has churned out final messages and the Pope’s documents relating to the themes discussed. The result is the danger of preparing documents that are far from the feeling of the people and which have little to say to local communities. After the publication of the material of the Synod of Bishops dedicated to the Middle East (2010), a journalist asked a bishop what he thought. The bishop answered that the content was fine, yet if one took away the references to the Middle East and changed them with Oceania, the result would have been an equally good document. In other words, the final document of a synod that was meant to talk to the people of a specific cultural background was in fact a document that could be used anywhere. It lacked novelty, it lacked depth, most of all, it was not addressing local issues and offering solutions with a local flavour. Perhaps now is the time to move the synods from Rome to other locations, and give participants more freedom to interact with reality, to talk with local media, to send back to their communities the work done and listen to their reactions. Only in this way shall we be able to give a real continental flavour to our documents, to our teachings.
RENEWAL OF CANNON LAW
The same process could be used to renew Canon Law. Canon Law is an important tool for the work of the Church. Many Christians are not aware of it, and perhaps do not realise that the Church has a body of laws of its own. Instead, Canon Law touches their lives in many ways. The way we celebrate and live baptism, marriage, relationships within the Church, is guided by Canon Law. In the past, a great amount of work was done to re-organise these Canons. The result was a body of laws that place the believers in Jesus Christ at the centre of the Church. More is needed to adapt laws to local understanding of life. For instance, we all know that marriage is indissoluble, i.e. it cannot be broken. According to Church Law, a marriage is valid if the couple entered into partnership willingly and not under pressure, if they accepted to celebrate the wedding according to Catholic understanding and accepted that their union was for the good of the couple and the procreation of offspring. The marriage is considered valid when it is celebrated according to the ritual approved by the Church and the couple share their love with sexual intercourse. This is acceptable in all cultures. However, there could be subtle or substantial differences between a celebration in Europe and one in Africa. Among many ethnic groups in Africa, marriage is not only the event linking two people, it also involves the families of the couple, and often the most important friends. The wedding is not the most important happening in the whole process. Marriage is the result of a long journey and the wedding day is only one step of the journey. Is there a way to translate this into the celebration of a Catholic marriage, which would then be recognizably Catholic but also African? Many believe so. Indeed, there are many local experiments that journey along this line. Local bishops have approved translation of liturgical rites that keep cultural values in mind. These experiments are still under scrutiny. They would receive a push if Canon Law could be adapted at continental or regional level to take into consideration different approaches to life and to spirituality.
A WIDER EVANGELISATION
Another major challenge the Church will face in the years ahead is evangelisation. Proclaiming the Gospel is the very reason for the Church to be there in the first place. The Church has always sent missionaries to distant lands to evangelise. Since the 19th century, a renewed missionary effort allowed the Church to take root almost everywhere. In Africa, there are still some areas where the Catholic Church has not yet reached the whole population. In Asia, the missionary field is wider yet. However, the Church is already present in all countries. These data should not trick us into believing that the evangelisation effort is over. On one hand, while the Church is growing in the South of the world, it is decreasing in the West, so much so that the Church is working on defining new ways of reevangelising Europe and the Americas. On the other hand, evangelisation is not simply instituting the structures of the Church everywhere. Proclaiming the Gospel and building parishes is only part of the work of evangelisation. Much must be done to challenge the structures of society that do not respond to the criteria of the Gospel. For instance, the world of finance and the world of politics—are they Christian? Certainly, the world of finance, industrial production and agriculture responds to God’s command to develop the earth and make it fruitful. However, this is not always done according to God’s plan. In the past years, we have seen the greed of international companies which have no qualms to take productive land from indigenous people and use it to produce food for export. There are many industries that pollute, mistreat their workers and make use of children to enhance their profits. There are investors who endeavour to make more money by playing games with the market, movement of shares, and foreign exchange, without ever producing anything useful for society. Indeed, the financial crisis now gripping the western world originated in unethical dealings by banks. The Gospel needs to reach these institutions and people, enlighten the need for justice and uphold the rights of people, even before profit. A similar claim can be done for any human activity, especially for actions in the political arena. Politics, the art of managing communal living, can be a great resource for people, as long as politicians accept their call to serve society. Evangelizing politics is an important duty of all local Churches. Christians are challenged every day to live a life of commitment, to give a testimony of their faith in the choices they make. This is the best way to open the way for change, and to find the moral resources to accept the challenges that lie ahead of us.