A year ago, a hurrah burst out at St. Peter's Square: " Habemus Papam! -- We have a new Pope!" Today, Catholics around the world have come to realize that they were not only cheering a new Pope, they were cheering the beginning of a new era for the Catholic Church.
After a recent meeting with the Pope, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna said, "It is fascinating to see how Pope Francis is encouraging, reviving and renewing the Church"" Indeed, Francis has convinced many reform-minded Catholics that, after more than a decade, the "mundane Church that lives within itself, of itself and for itself" is finally coming to an end, that a Vatican Spring is looming.
Conservative Catholics, for their part, believing the church to be an immovable rock of morality in a fallen, secular world, couldn't hide their dismay and, tend to accuse all of the recent reforms as blatant inconsequential grasps for media attention. The constant refrain from their camp is that Pope Francis is, in no meaningful way, changing the fundamentals of the Catholic Church.
2000 years of Church history, however, have shown that change, both in style and substance, is the norm rather than the exception. Many Vatican observers note that such change can be seen in the creative theological thinking behind the Pope's titling of his latest Apostolic Exhortation "Joy of the Gospel" rather than "Truth of the Gospel." Francis, they argue, wishes to rebrand the Catholic Church as one that is open, welcoming and compassionate, as opposed to one obsessed with rules and regulations, constantly nagging the faithful as well as the public.
"Who am I to judge?" Five words that, when uttered by the newly-elected Pope, shock the world and leave breathless many clericals so used to citing "Papal infallibility" in defending everything from church doctrine to priestly power. The shockwaves continue as the pope refuses to sit in judgment of gay priests, and demonstrates much more leniency towards atheists, unwed mothers and the divorced, all of whom were either condemned or censured by his predecessors.
Pope Francis acknowledges that the Church does not have all the answers, emphasizing the idea of the church is a learning institution that "needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed Word and in her understanding of truth." He advocates decentralization of the Church teaching office and encourages a more horizontal Ecclesiology. To those conservatives yearning for continuity, desiring a monolithic, small, and pure ecclesiastical body, Francis affirms "we need to listen to and complement one another in our partial reception on reality and the Gospel."
John Paul II spent 15 years rewriting the catechism that was so fiercely reinforced by Benedict, desperate to preserve traditional Catholicism by forcing Catholics to prove their adherence to church teachings, challenging them to answer the question: Are you qualified to be a Catholic? Francis, for his part, sees the Church as "the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all his or her problems". He urges priests to reach out to people on the streets, and cited Vatican II when he said that the Church is a pilgrimage, and is thus in need of transformation rather than resting on some laurels.
The Pope is a Jesuit, a people who speak of themselves as companions of Jesus, of the suffering Jesus who is present in and amongst the poor, who identifies with the vulnerable, and stands with them to be the voice of their liberation. This notion constitutes, indeed, the biblical rationale for Liberation Theology. It is no coincidence, therefore, that this first non-European pope, hailing from Latin America, the cradle of Liberation Theology, calls unfettered capitalism "a new tyranny".
The view of laity in church has come a long way over the past century. In 1906, Pope Pius X described the laity as "a docile flock" whose duty was to follow the pastors. In the 1960's, Vatican II called for the laity to share in the "priestly, prophetic and kingly function of Christ." Now, Francis, in a "paradigm shift," is paradoxically showing us a new way of being for the Bishop of Rome by returning to the ways of Vatican II.What has Francis achieved in his first year as Pope? He has returned the Church to its flock.