Pope Francis Keeps his Promise to the Laity
Recent key appointments in the Vatican curia suggest that Pope Francis is true to his promise to give laity and women a greater role in running the Church, as ELISE HARRIS explains.
Several recent appointments by Pope Francis to Vatican departments show that his reform of the Roman curia is in tune with what he’s said from the beginning about his vision for the Church.
When we look at what Francis has preached about since practically his first day in office, three biggies come to mind: a Church that is less clerical, has a stronger lay involvement, and a greater presence of women.With his decision this month to appoint several lay persons to important Vatican posts, Pope Francis has made good on his intentions.
He has appointed American journalist Greg Burke as the new director for the Holy See Press Office, with Spanish journalist Paloma García Ovejero as his number two.
After the retirement of what’s considered to be the “old guard”, the new appointments represent a shift from traditional standards. While previously there has typically been a priest and an Italian in the mix, now it’s two laypeople in charge, both of whom are non-Italians.
Also worthy of note is that the pope scored more points with the laity by nominating German professor Markus Schächter, Spanish psychologist Leticia Soberón Mainero and US pro-life advocate Kim Daniels to the Secretariat for Communications.
The appointments are significant because while laity have always been named as consultors to pontifical councils and congregations, these three laypeople were appointed members.
Under Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic constitution Pastor bonus—which regulates and defines responsibilities, duties and the composition of the offices of the Roman curia— membership to councils and congregations was exclusive to cardinals and bishops.
As Ms García Ovejero put it shortly after her appointment was announced, the pope’s decision to appoint her and Mr Burke was “coherent with what he preached from the beginning”.
Ms García Ovejera, the first woman to ever be appointed to the position of vice-director of the Holy See Press Office, said that to have two laypersons working in a man-woman duo for the press office was “a logical choice”.
Pope Francis, she said, “is coherent with his words and with his vision of the Church. A Church that goes out, a Church that’s not clerical, which all of us feel a part of and feel responsible in announcing the Gospel. The mission is to announce the Gospel.”Getting rid of the notion that the Church, and the Vatican in particular, is divided into the classes of commoners versus a higher “spiritual elite” has been a priority for Francis even during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
In a 2011 interview with an Argentinian Catholic news agency, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio warned against the temptation of priests to “clericalise the laity” and to “infect them with our own disease” without realising it.
This is an idea he has pushed with full force since the beginning of his pontificate. In his first major event after being elected as Successor of Peter in 2013, Pope Francis told a group of Argentine youth during World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero that he hoped “for a mess…that the Church takes to the streets. That we defend ourselves from comfort, that we defend ourselves from clericalism.”
“We’d do well to recall that the Church is not an elite [group of] priests, of consecrated people, of bishops but all of us make up the faithful and Holy People of God,” he said in a recent letter to the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, explaining that it’s “illogical and even impossible for us as pastors to believe that we have the monopoly on solutions for the numerous challenges thrown up by contemporary life”.
Given his recent appointments, Francis is following through and letting his words become actions by allowing the laity to have more space in decision-making posts in the Vatican.
Coupled with Francis’ desire to suppress a clericalist attitude has been his great push to have a stronger, louder lay voice within the Church.
In the 2011 interview with the Argentine agency, the future pope said that the reform that’s needed in the Church is “neither to clericalise nor ask to be clericalised”, but to encourage laypeople to embrace their role, evangelising in everyday life within their families, workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods.
During the October 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family, Pope Francis announced his decision to establish a new Vatican department dedicated to Laity, Family and Life, set to go into effect on September 1, 2016.
He made it clear that the members would include not only consecrated persons, but also laypeople, both men and women, who work in different fields from around the world. He has said on previous occasions that a department dedicated to the topics of family and the laity could be headed by either a married couple or a lay individual.His decision to put two laypeople in charge of the Holy See Press Office, then, shows that he means what he says, and that as his reform continues to move forward, he won’t be shy in breaking away from traditional structural compositions.
The fact that Ms García Ovejero is the first woman—and a laywoman, for that matter—to ever be appointed as deputy spokesperson for the Holy See is a prime example of what Pope Francis has asked for several times in calling for a more “incisive” feminine presence in the Church.
He first garnered headlines for the phrase in a 2014 address when he said that “I hope that more spaces are widened for a feminine presence in the Church that is more widespread and incisive”.
He widened that space mere months later with the September 2014 appointment of four women to the International Theological Commission. Women now comprise 16% of the commission’s members, which is a greater representation than they’ve ever had before.
In April of that year Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, revealed that his department was looking for another secretary after the former had been reassigned.
He recalled that in a conversation with Pope Francis, the pontiff gave the green light for the position to be filled by a woman. However, the position remains empty as the office prepares to merge with several others to form a larger dicastery as part of the ongoing reform.
In a 2015 address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, Francis said that women “know how to incarnate the tender face of God, his mercy, which translates into availability to give time more than to occupy spaces, to welcome instead of excluding”.
While Pope Francis has often said that his reform won’t be a quick process, but will rather be carried out over a period of several years, we’re already starting to get a clearer picture of what the process will look like.
And if this past month is any indication, we can see Francis’ vision beginning to unfold, showing a Church that truly “goes out” and is open to the “newness” of the Holy Spirit. As a man who follows through on what he says, Pope Francis, we can see, is doing what he was elected to do.—CNA