Opinion: What happens in the Catholic Church matters to everyone
There is something about the unpredictability of this papal conclave that really amazes me.
The world is being challenged to wait because no one knows what the outcome of this conclave will be. Are we going to see the surprises of the Holy Spirit with the emergence of a dark horse at the end of this process?
We may not have to wait for too long for the answer to come. In a world where we seem to always be in a hurry, and where we all are seized by the predictability of most of our electronic gadgets, and social services, it is interesting to know that there are many things which we cannot predict or control in life, one of which is the person who will become the head of the largest single Christian group in the world.
But there is also another important point here: what happens in the Catholic Church matters to so many people in the world who are non-Catholics. This is why it is painful when the Church fails to live up to her calling, when it fails to defend the vulnerable, or when it resists the movement of the spirit in history.
The reverse is also the case that the Catholic Church has shone brightly in those moments when she exemplified the unconditional love of God to the weak and the vulnerable; when she stands up against dictatorship and abuse of human rights, when she leads men and women to personal and group transformation, and through her educational traditions, spiritualities, and outreach to the poor and those on the margins.
Indeed, Catholicism signifies the grace of caritas, unity in diversity, and a rich mix of old and new, innovation and tradition, and progress and decline. These need to be held in balance; privileging one or the other does harm to the body of Christ. To a large extent, this is a special moment of grace and opportunity for the Catholic Church to reclaim her true identity, and to redefine how she can carry out her mission of preaching the Good news in a changed and changing world.
Part of the challenge facing the Church today is how to divest the papacy of what is often perceived as an absolute authority. Pope John Paul II in 1995 wrote about this in his encyclical Ut Unum Sit when he made this appeal to Catholics, and other Christians: “I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility…to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
I believe that we are now in a new situation that demands that too much power and responsibility should not be reposed on one man and a few men in the curia. We sure need a central authority in the Catholic Church; we sure need a structure of authority and a center where we can settle issues that are essential to the church’s understanding of her identity and mission.
However, pastoral ministry today in Canada for instance requires that local pastors, bishops, and lay pastoral workers should become fully empowered to address the challenges and opportunities in their social location without seeking for permission from Rome. The bishops of the Catholic Church according to the Second Vatican Council are Vicars of Christ, and not Vicars of the Pope or legates of the Vatican. But that is what it looks like now, which helps to create the lack of transparency and accountability to local Catholics by bishops and pastors in some cases.
In terms of concrete actions, I am hoping that the next Pope should not become a slave to one idea or a single narrative of Catholicism, but should be someone who understands the beauty and richness of diversity and pluralism within the oneness of the Catholic family. If the Christian God is a community of diversity with a rich unity of relationship and oneness of being, the Church which is built on this image, should model her life, teaching, and action on recognizing and celebrating the dignity of differences without sacrificing her true identity. The next Pope should be someone who has the capacity to listen, who is wise with a strong spiritual depth, and who will lead both from the head, but above all from the heart. Catholicism suffers when we essentialize what it means to be Catholic or interpret as normative those traditions, laws or structures which are the product of historical exigencies, cultural factors, and human attempts in the past to meet the challenges of a bygone age. Each generation of Catholics must dig deep into the forces of its history, privileging the resources within the times and taping into the rich positive Christian traditions of the past, to meet the new challenges of the present.
The next Pope must realize that we are now at the beginning of a post-Western Catholicism, and a post-Christian Western society. The ideals of some versions of Catholicism and a defunct Christendom which is a throw-back to Medieval notion of faith, life, and orthodoxy are strange and irrelevant not only to Western Christians today but more so to Christians from the Global South.
The next Pope must, therefore, enter into dialogue with the modern world, and all Catholics especially those from the Global South in order to understand the contextual nature of faith. We do not need a stifling uniformity in the Catholic Church, but a diversity which respects the new narratives of faith which are emerging in places like Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Nigeria, India, as well as the renewal of faith happening in Mississauga, Lyon, Rimini, and many unheralded but flourishing parishes throughout the world. The next Pope should seek to learn from the world, and embrace cultural traditions as a friend and not as a foe.
That does not mean that the Catholic Church should embrace all the social experimentations in the modern world. However, it means that the Church must appreciate and respond to the deeper concerns of social change and social movements in the world. There is a convergence of values in the world today in terms of what is needed for human and cosmic flourishing and one expects the next Pope to wholeheartedly embrace global conversations at all levels for the promotion of human rights, for concerted global actions against climate change, for the removal of all discriminatory laws and prejudices against people the world over on account of sex, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, economic and social condition.
The next Pope must also attend to the hurts in the hearts of many Catholics who have suffered from sexual abuse, many divorced and separated Catholics who feel alienated from their church, and many ex-priests, ex-nuns, and ex-Catholics who have given up on the Church because they feel that it is out of touch with their daily realities.
Indeed, the challenge facing the Catholic Church the world over is to model in her life and teaching, and in the lives of her leaders the simplicity, humility, and love of the poor man of Galilee. The world needs a servant-transformative Pope who will seize the grace of this moment to lift both the Catholic Church, Christianity, and the world to a new level of meaning, value, love, justice, courage, light and hope.
Stan Chu Ilo is Assistant Professor of Religion and Education, Director of Field Education, University of St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, founder Canadian Samaritans for Africa, author, The Church and Development in Africa; Discover your Divine Investment: Path to a Joyful Life.