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Pope Francis: 'He is trying to encourage a more adult, participatory institutional model'

It will require imagination and critical engagement from other agents in the Church if the change he envisages is to happen, writes Gerry O’Hanlon SJ.

Gerry O'Hanlon SJ Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

POPE FRANCIS BEGINS his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (2013) with the upbeat proclamation that the ‘… Joy of the Gospel fill the hearts of all those who encounter Jesus’ (EG, 1).

However, it is well known that when Francis was elected bishop of Rome and pope earlier that year in 2013, it was at a time of little joy for the Catholic Church.

Grave problems

In the meetings of cardinals leading up to his election many grave problems were mentioned: the scandal of child sexual abuse, suspected financial and other improprieties within the Vatican itself, the ongoing contested reception of the Second Vatican Council, the many economic and social injustices experienced by the marginalised worldwide, the role of women in the Church, disputes about teaching on sexual morality, the shortage of priests in many parts of the world, to name but some of the many difficult issues.

The atmosphere was troubled. There was a sense that the Church had lost its way, was no longer a sacrament or sign for the world of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom, a sign of hope.

Instead, despite the ongoing wonderful witness of so many, it seemed like almost an anti-sign, an easy target for unsympathetic enemies and unconvincing even to many of its friends.

Sense of crisis

Ireland has not escaped this sense of crisis. There has been a huge loss of moral authority due to the mishandling of the clerical child sexual abuse scandal. In addition, for various reasons, the Church found itself ill-prepared to face the growing challenges of secularisation, modernity and post-modernity.

There was particular focus on the role of the Church in civil society in areas like health and education, not to mention in debates about same-sex marriage and abortion. There was, in addition, growing awareness of the shortage of priests, the silencing of some prominent clerical voices, and the neuralgic issue around how women are treated in the Church.

There continues to be the ongoing haemorrhaging of young people from the Church, a sense that there is a disconnect, a lack of that ‘Velcro-effect’ that might attach the language of faith to the lived experience of life.

First moments

What became clear from the very first moments of the pontificate of Francis was that he seemed to sense the depths of the problem. It has become apparent since that he has a clear and radical strategic response.

This book will explore the nature of the problem in a little more detail (Part One: Setting the Scene), and then analyse the response of Francis in its main aspects (Part Two: Pope Francis and the Quiet Revolution) and the issues which arise (Part Three: Emerging Issues).

It will conclude with a reflection on how we in Ireland can best respond in a critically constructive way to his proposals (Part Four: Ireland Revisited). I have rehearsed much of this analysis in previously published articles, all of which are referred to in the bibliography.

Significant contributions

Francis, I will suggest, has made two very significant contributions to our understanding of Church reform. Firstly, he has located the issues of renewal and reform within the more basic truth of our encounter with Jesus Christ and the missionary impulse this generates – including the joy of discipleship and the outreach to the peripheries and to the marginalised (‘a poor Church for the poor’).

This outward-looking location means that reform is not simply self-referential, better organisational structures for their own sake: no, reform always functions with respect to mission. In principle at least this missionary focus can help to unite a Church which had become weary of fruitless battles between liberals and conservatives.

Secondly, and crucially, Francis has identified the institutional and cultural shape of the reform he envisages: the Church for the third millennium must be synodal, collegial, an ‘inverted pyramid’, in which the People of God are primary and the hierarchy in all its forms are there to serve the People in whom the Holy Spirit is present.

Synodal Church

Francis believes that this kind of model of Church is more suitable for our age, while being rooted in Scripture and tradition. He is well aware that liberals and conservatives will continue to disagree on many important issues, but he believes that a synodal Church, which learns how to discern communally, is more able to live through these conflicts in a way that is fruitful and not demoralising.

And, more importantly for this missionary-focused bishop of Rome, he believes that a synodal Church is a more appropriate institutional and cultural place from which to dialogue with our world, which, often without realising it, has great need of the hope and good news which comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This crucial focus on a synodal way of being Church has been spoken about by Francis himself as not just an era of change, but ‘a change of era’.[1] It is a paradigm shift, a fundamental change which goes beyond even important adjustments to the existing model of Church.

We are speaking here of a revolution, in the sense of a radical change to an existing structure. This change is, however, non-violent, and it recalls an original cosmological and astronomical meaning of the term revolution (to turn back; revolving around a centre), in that the fundamental change is also a return to a previous way of being Church, albeit now with appropriate adjustments for changed times.

Quiet, velvet revolution

This quiet, velvet revolution can easily be missed by other striking features of this papacy and by the failure of the rest of us – including hierarchies – to appreciate what is at stake. It is my hope that this book may contribute to raising awareness of what is involved, to teasing out what Francis is proposing, and assessing its suitability, with particular reference to Ireland.

Of course there is no guarantee that Francis will be successful in what he is trying to achieve. There is much opposition, and a great deal of apathy. He is in the ironic position of having the appearance to the world of a celebrity-monarch trying to abolish monarchy and celebrity.

He is, instead, trying to encourage a more adult, participatory institutional model, with a leadership of service. It would be easy – and a papal visit offers the ideal but fatal temptation in this direction – to surf the wave of the papal popularity of Francis, or to applaud some particular areas of reform and still miss the wood for the trees: Francis is proposing something more strategic, more revolutionary and more durable.

Along with this model of Church comes the promise of a new capacity to resolve over time the many single issues of contention which now appear intractable. It will require imagination and critical engagement from other agents in the Church if the change he envisages is to happen.


Address by Pope Francis to Italian bishops in Florence, 10 November 2015 – see The Tablet, 11 November 2015.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ taught for many years at the Milltown Institute, and later joined the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. He has written extensively on Church reform and the role of the Church in the public square. The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis: A Synodal Church in Ireland by Gerry O’Hanlon SJ. Published by Messenger Publications, (direct link to book on website is:


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About the author:

Gerry O'Hanlon SJ  / Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice

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