What if the Pope doesn't have all the answers?

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’."

Pope Francis.
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.

Columban Fr Noel Connolly.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.

Watch/Listen to a series of Reflection videos by Columban Fr Noel Connolly


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Comments (9)

  1. Colin Apelt:
    Sep 24, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    Thank you Fr Noel for this thoughtful reflection. Pope Francis' question "Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?” goes straight to the heart of the major issue in the Australian church - which is the only one I know well. The vast majority of clergy I have known - priests as well as Bishops - talk well about the mission of the laity but they do not carry through with education and empowerment of the people. And real delegation in matters in which educated laity are far more expert than any clergy is rare, almost to the point of not existing.

    Last Edit: 24 Sep, 2014, 11:58:40 by Columban Missionaries


    1. Alex Pollock:
      Sep 24, 2014 at 05:24 PM



  2. Adrian Commadeur:
    Sep 24, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    Pope Francis' remarks about the prospect of the laity to have the freedom to discern the mission entrusted to them, particularly in the context of the Synod of the Family, are encouraging. The laity could be concerned that a legalistic rather than realistic attitude will be taken by some bishops who have little understanding of the nature of family life in 21st century culture. Clearly the laity are making their own faith inspired decisions about e.g. contraception, and other family matters.


  3. Quentin Schneider:
    Sep 24, 2014 at 06:29 PM

    Most Australians despise politics. Normal people hate the idea of attending meetings. Hopefully the suggestion does not simply inspire the politically motivated laity to dedicate themselves to clericalising their involvement with the Church and its decision making processes. The feedback from friends who have been involved in Anglican Synods is depressing (just because of the processes and lobbying involved, and how politicised their structures become, with consequent bitterness and division). Having a chance to have input is wonderful, so long as we don't have to think of it from the mindset (or worse still the actuality) of voting or attending meetings!


  4. Peter Kennedy:
    Sep 25, 2014 at 02:52 PM

    I'm not sure what happens in Latin America, but certainly all Australian bishops for at least the past 40 years have given the laity to the maximum “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them; supported them and accompanied them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them”.

    The problems here are:
    1. Many laity infantilize THEMSELVES and and won't do or say anything in what Varican II so strongly re-emphasised is THEIR OWN role of evangelizing their families, workplaces and the wider community, but instead leave it to the clergy to do these things, and think that their role as Catholics is to "help Father" in the CLERGY's job of liturgical functions WITHIN the walls of the church building.

    2. The role of the laity which Vatican II and Pope Francis lay out assumes a priori that the laity have been adequately catechised in the Faith and give the full assent of their minds and their whole hearts to the whole of the truths of the Faith as revealed by Christ through his Church. Unfortunately many laity in Australia (even many who attend Mass regularly) are woefully ignorant of the doctrines of the Faith and the reasons for them, or even deliberately and knowingly act contrarily to them and in some cases even actively work within and outside the Church to undermine them and her. Even more unfortunately many of the latter type of "Catholics" are also the type who love to muscle their way into control of any consultative committees that are formed.


  5. George Lato:
    Sep 26, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    Unfortunately, the top echelons of the Church have not been in touch with the reality of their flock for far too long. It has taken Pope Francis to highlight the importance of having "the smell of the sheep”. The Church operates as a “top-down” only organisation and is reluctant to get any candid feedback especially from the laity.

    For the first time ever, in preparation for the forthcoming synod, a world-wide questionnaire about family and other issues was circulated for the laity to respond to. Where are the responses? Does the Church in Australia intend to publish the findings?

    For far too long, the attitude taken by the Church has been that the Church can provide answers to complex questions which are correct with 100% certainty! Answers, especially those relating to family life including divorce, contraception, homosexuality etc have been nothing more than regurgitated academic style solutions provided by old men who have no idea about the reality and practical aspects of the problems. Lay persons, especially women, have been all but excluded from the decision making process.

    Sometime ago, I tried to discuss the problems faced by people whose marriages have broken down (incidentally not directly impacting me or my family) with a fairly senior member of the Church hierarchy and pointed out the need for understanding and compassion. In return I got a barrage of references to canon law! Smell of sheep?

    “Often, so often, we find among our faithful, simple old women who perhaps didn’t even finish elementary school, but who can speak to us of things better than any theologian, because they have the Spirit of Christ” - not my words but those of Pope Francis.

    Last Edit: 26 Sep, 2014, 12:14:45 by Columban Missionaries


  6. Ann-Marie King:
    Sep 27, 2014 at 09:35 AM

    Thank you Fr Noel. I hope you are well. I look forward to your future articles on this very important subject. God bless you and your work.

    Last Edit: 29 Sep, 2014, 09:49:51 by Columban Missionaries


  7. Joe Barr:
    Sep 28, 2014 at 07:37 PM

    Some years ago, Teams of Our Lady, an international Catholic movement of small groups of married couples who support each other to strengthen marriage in this modern world, put together a questionnaire on marriage. It was discussed by these 'Teams' and the answers were collated to be relayed through the bishops to the Vatican to give a lay view of the sacrament of Catholic marriage as it is lived today. It didn't shy away from issues and challenges but did suggest how couples were dealing with them.

    Opportunities like this for lay people to contribute to Church thinking have been rare in the past but they have existed. Hopefully the leadership and attitude of Pope Francis will provide more opportunities for all Catholics to participate in adapting Church responses to this modern world.

    Last Edit: 29 Sep, 2014, 02:30:05 by Columban Missionaries


  8. Joseph Cincotta:
    Oct 01, 2014 at 10:16 PM

    My first comment is what if the Pope is wrong? Reading the comments so far, all I can say, that all have different feelings of what is happening in the church, which is exactly what the problem is as I see it, every body is talking and no one is listening, and no one has said what is it that makes the church different than any other church? and what is the meaning of a church or people set apart mean? If the Pope feels he has not got all the answers? all the answers to what? does that follow that we do not any longer need one? than what is the meaning of unity? shall we become a number of different little churches just as the multitude that are now everywhere? My thinking is that the question poses is that it is time for the church to be renewed from within and Christians to be more than Sunday Christian as we are now, the church building is basically only used on Sunday for the living and week days for the dead for their last attendance and be taken for burial thereafter. Also let us not forget who resides alone in this building JESUS. Who is forgotten until the next Sunday for one hour when mass is celebrated if people are not running late or have to leave early. So what is Vatican II all about? from what responses I have read the answer seems that the Pope feels he cannot guide and the laity is becoming self centered.

    Last Edit: 2 Oct, 2014, 10:15:48 by Columban Missionaries


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