More than one commentator has suggested recently that Pope Francis is all symbolism and little substance. I disagree. (For one thing, I think symbolism is substance.)
Here are six areas in which Pope Francis has made real differences which are unlikely to be overturned by a future Pope.
1. The end of the imperial papacy. “Conservative” theologians never tire of saying that the Church is not a democracy. That’s true. But neither is it a monarchy, not mind an empire. It is, as Cardinal Avery Dulles said, “a community of disciples.”
Pope Francis is no imperial figure. He does not live in the Apostolic Palace, but in a guesthouse. He has avoided much of the traditional papal regalia. He dislikes the idea of a papal court, with its myriad of ceremonial attendants. He travels in a modest car, even on occasion on a bus (with cardinals).
2. More effective communication. Traditionally, popes have spoken with extreme caution and avoided spontaneous comments. Now, Francis gives daily homilies off the cuff. He speaks freely to crowds--and never over their heads. His engaging and open style of communication has mesmerized the media, and it is often said of Pope Francis that “The world is listening.”
3. Initial reform of the Curia (Vatican offices and departments). It has long been a complaint that the curia is too powerful and, yes, imperious. It has tended to boss bishops around.
Recently, bishops have spoken about a new mood in (many) curial offices, one that is more respectful of local bishops and national bishops’ conferences. The bishops of Japan have, for instance, stated that Rome is now much more respectful of the authority of their bishops’ conference on liturgical matters, and is more willing to let them judge what is best for their country. Bishops’ conferences do not want a repeat of the Vatican procedures for approving liturgical translations, as occurred in the English-speaking world.
4. Evangelical style. From the beginning, Pope Francis has said that he does not want a church that is introverted, turned in on itself. The Church, he believes, must stop being obsessed with itself, but must go out in mission. He wants a Church “for the world.” That includes getting away from internal obsession with liturgical matters.
5. A spirit of openness. Some bishops have said that there is a new openness in the Vatican generally. Bishops needs no longer fear Vatican critique or correction when stating their opinions. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna (always on my list of papal candidates) has said that a certain atmosphere of fear has evaporated and that there is a greater incidence of honesty and respect. Pope Francis has, for instance, shown himself open to the prospect of married priests in clergy-poor regions of the Church.
6. Last but not least, themes of mercy, charity, forgiveness, solidarity, and compassion are now at the fore of papal teaching and speaking. This is not to suggest that previous Popes have failed in this regard, only to point out the extraordinary manner in which these themes stand at the heart and center of Pope Francis’ ministry. Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” question has made an extraordinary impression on the Church and on society at large.
Pope Francis is not a man of empty symbolism, but of symbolism with real and concrete substance. He has achieved an enormous amount in his fifteen months as Pope. May he live long that we may see even greater achievements in the style (therefore, substance) of papal ministry.