New papacy, new hope?

Second Reading

Time to give women a leading role in the Church

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

I know that last Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost but for many Catholics it arrived earlier this year.
The resignation of Pope Benedict in February has injected a spirit of hope into the church. Hope is that wonderful thing, marvellously evoked by Emily Dickinson in a short poem:
“Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops at all”.
Leonardo Boff is also singing a new song of praise. A liberation theologian and a Franciscan priest, he was driven out of the priesthood in the 1990’s as a result of persistent Vatican questioning of his orthodoxy. His advocacy of human rights, because it was influenced by some great socialist thinkers, was anathema to Pope John Paul II.
Recently, I received from a source in South America, his reflections on the new pontificate entitled ‘Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome’. I present here an edited version without explanation or gloss. It speaks powerfully for itself.
“From the moment that the pope was elected, the comparison between the two Francis’s, the one from Assisi and the one from Rome became inevitable.
Francis of Rome explicitly referenced Francis of Assisi. Clearly it is not about mimicry, but about looking for points of inspiration that will inform us about the style that Francis of Rome wants to give to the direction of the universal church. There is a common point:
The crisis of the ecclesiastic institution. Francis of Assisi is said to have heard a voice coming from the crucifix of San Damiano, that told him ”Francis repair my church for it is a shambles”.
We are also experiencing a grave crisis caused by the internal scandals of the ecclesiastic institution itself. A universal outcry is being heard. The voice of the people is the voice of God. Repair the church whose morality and credibility are in shambles. To a Cardinal from the periphery of the world, from Buenos Aires, has been trusted the mission as Pope of restoring the church in the light of Francis of Assisi.
In the time of Francis of Assisi, Pope Innocent was triumphant. In fact for a time, practically all Europe, including Russia was subjected to the Pope. Life was then lived with the greatest pomp and glory. In 1210, filled with doubt, Innocent recognised Francis of Assisi’s path of poverty. The crisis at that time was theological because the church as a temporal and sacred empire contradicted everything Jesus of Nazareth wanted.
Francis of Assisi lived the antithesis of the imperial church. To the gospel of power, he offered the power of the gospel: total relinquishment, radical poverty and extreme simplicity. He did not place himself in the clerical or monastic framework, but as a layman, he was guided by the gospel, lived strictly on the periphery of cities where the poor and the lepers lived and in the heart of nature, living a cosmic union with all beings. He spoke to the centre from the periphery, asking for conversion. He began from below but without ‘breaking with Rome’.
We find ourselves before a Christian genius with a seductive humanity and fascinating tenderness and caring who openly discovered the best of our humanity.
This strategy must have impressed Francis of Rome. The Roman Curia and the clerical habits of all the church must be reformed but there should not be a rupture that could tear apart the body of Christianity.
Another point that most certainly inspired Francis of Rome, the centrality that Francis of Assisi gave to the poor. He lived with the poor. Francis of Rome has been reiterating that the problem of poverty can only be solved, not by philanthropy, but by social justice.
In his inaugural address, Francis of Rome used the word caring more than eight times. It is the ethic of caring that will save humanity and guarantee the vitality of the ecosystems. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, will be the model for a respectful and fraternal relationship towards all beings, not above nature, but side by side with her.
Francis of Assisi maintained with Saint Clare a relationship of great friendship and true love. He exalted women and their virtues. I hope that Francis of Assisi will inspire in Francis of Rome, a relationship with women, who are the majority of the church, not only of respect but which gives them a leading role in the decision-making paths of faith and spirituality in the new millennium. The full text of Leonarda Boff’s article is available on the web.