A return of fresh air in the Church


Windows in the house must be opening. That fresh air feeling is getting stronger.
Older Catholics will remember a half-century ago when Pope John XXIII declared that the Church needed to throw open its windows and let in fresh air. It was his way of describing a spirit of renewal he wanted for the Second Vatican Council, which he had called.
That council, bringing the Catholic bishops of the world together in Rome from 1962 to 1965, did generate a fresh spirit of openness and inquiry in the Church. There was a deep excitement about being Catholic at that time. We could feel great possibilities in new relationships with every other citizen of Earth, new understanding and closeness in our worship of God, new freedom to see our own personal experience and talents as pathways of discipleship in the body of Christ.
In the decades since those heady days we have sobered up — probably too much. Church leadership had the task of consolidating all of that excitement and settling it down for the long haul. A concern for order in the house began bringing the windows down until it became hard to feel any fresh air.
Pope Francis is changing that. Like his predecessor John, he is putting his personal stamp of openness on the Church’s manner of operating. He has set up a new inner “cabinet” of eight cardinal-advisors to help with a fresh look at Church governance, especially the way that system we call “the Vatican” functions. His appointments to top positions at the Vatican already signal windows going up.
His choice as Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, currently papal nuncio in Venezuela, told an interviewer last week that the Church could use a “more democratic spirit.”
News media in this country picked a mention of celibacy out of that interview for headline use. Archbishop Parolin’s comment on that subject was interesting, but what he said about the spirit of Church leadership is more important.
He told the Venezuelan newspaper, El Universal, that it would be good for the Church to have a “more democratic spirit, in the sense of listening carefully. I think the pope has indicated this as an aim of his pontificate: a collegial leadership of the Church in which all requests can be expressed.”
“All requests can be expressed.” Careful listening. This sounds like an announcement that dialogue, multi-directional communication rather than proclamation alone, is to be the preferred mode representing the voice of God in the Church. This would make us more like a gathering of believers searching and finding God in communion with one another: less like the Holy Roman Empire and more like the Acts of the Apostles.
This is where Archbishop Parolin gave us real news, real hope.
On celibacy he acknowledged what we already know: it is a discipline for priesthood in the Latin Church, not an article of faith. He added that whether the discipline changes or not is “a great challenge” for the pope because his ministry is one of unity for the whole Church. “It is possible to … consider some modifications,” Archbishop Parolin said, “but always in the service of unity and according to God’s will.”
Then the newly appointed Secretary of State commented that one also needs to be attentive to the “spirit of the times.”
When looking for the will of God, we need attention to the signs of the times. This language is a connection to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council calling for renewal in the Church. With Pope Francis there are ever clearer invitations for all of us to join in a revival of that spirit.
Frank Wessling

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