What if the Pope doesn't have all the answers? is a scary question. In 'The Joy of the Gospel' (Apostolic Exhortation, 'Evangelii Gaudium'), Pope Francis has a new and refreshing view of the Pope’s role. He doesn’t believe he should have the answers to all the questions facing local churches. "It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization’."
In 'The Joy of the Gospel' (#16) He believes in empowering National Episcopal Conferences (#32) and illustrates this by quoting various national conferences including Latin America, India, the Philippines and our Oceania. In speaking to the coordinating committee of CELAM the Latin American Bishops Conference after World Youth Day in Brazil he challenged the Bishops, do we give the laity “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?”
If this is implemented it will be a radical and exciting change but it will demand a more adult level of faith from all of us. Do we have the courage and imagination for such responsibility and the skills needed to discern after decades of waiting for Rome to speak? To a certain extent Francis has given us back the Church. He has millions talking about him and sharing his dream of a more missionary and consultative Church.
Pope Francis has rescued Vatican II’s emphasis on pilgrimage as a model for the Church and the Christian life. Pilgrimage is a more exciting and demanding way of travelling. Pilgrims are explorers. They are not self-sufficient and cannot afford to be superior. They need to befriend the locals and search with other pilgrims. The earliest Christians talked about Christianity as The Way. Jesus did not leave us with a detailed road map. He left us with four stories called the Gospels. So while we do not have all the answers, we do have a vision, a goal and plenty of hope and faith to help us find the way.
In January, Francis reminded his brother Jesuits that God is “Deus semper major” - God is always more than we can grasp so we must keep searching for God in all things. We can never capture God and we do not own God or all God’s activity. We must be a pilgrim Church always searching, discerning and travelling towards the fullness of the Kingdom.
Pope Francis’ call for discernment will require a deeper faith and new skills and structures. It will be a challenge to Dioceses and Episcopal Conferences to discern for themselves the signs of the times and plan for the future. We will have to develop new structures for listening, consulting and deciding that involves everyone. This will involve structures such as national and diocesan Synods. At the moment we do not have such structures in the Australian Church. There have only been four national synods in our history and the last one was in 1937.
It is mind-bending just to envision the education, experimentation and imagination that will be required to develop truly participative and discerning structures of consultation but it is Francis’ clear call and our present need and it is a worthwhile challenge.
Fr Noel Connolly SSC is a Columban missionary priest. He is a member of the Columban Mission Institute in Sydney and a lecturer in Missiology at both the Broken Bay Institute and the Catholic Institute of Sydney. He has worked in many Australian Dioceses in programmes to welcome, enable and help integrate overseas priests and religious.