By Cardinal Blase J. Cupich
Over two decades ago, St. John Paul II asked the bishops of the world to help him chart a new way of exercising the ministry of the successor of Peter. In his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” (“That They May Be One”), the saintly pope readily admitted that the papal ministry has caused an obstacle to Christian unity.
In that document, John Paul II identified a pathway forward for reforming the papacy. It is striking that Pope Francis, who in the opinion of many is a different kind of pope, is in fact relying on many of the insights of that decades-old encyclical as his point of reference in reforming not only the papacy but the church. Four of those insights come to mind as I reflect on the fresh and visionary approach Pope Francis is bringing to the entire life of the church.
The first one is synodality. Synodality is an approach to church life that involves the participation of each local church in the governance of the universal church, through deliberative bodies. John Paul II made it clear that if the Petrine Office was going to be reformed, it would need the input of all churches, especially the Eastern ones. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has taken steps to this end.
In addition to appointing a Council of Cardinals to help him reform the Roman Curia, he also revised the way the Synod of Bishops would be organized and operate. He urged bishops attending the synod to speak openly: “No one should say to someone, ‘You cannot say that.’” Pope Francis has made it clear that the church needs to be more decentralized, placing in the hands of local bishops and national conferences of bishops certain decisions that need not be made in Rome.
Dialogue is a second central theme in “Ut Unum Sint.” John Paul II understood that too often people talk past each other without listening. Pope Francis, like his predecessor, is pressing for a more humble approach to conflict and division, but also in the church’s pastoral ministry. The pope recognizes, for instance, that when it comes to moral decision-making, it is important for pastors to have a dialogical approach to their service of people. Pastors must clearly articulate the general norms and the rules of Christian life.
At the same time, the pastor cannot stop there. As Francis writes in “Amoris Laetitia,” “It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.” Therefore, the pope calls for pastors to listen attentively, to use a dialogical approach when it comes to assisting people in their weighty moral decisions, taking into consideration the limits of people to act in certain cases, the extenuating circumstances and the brokenness that people suffer. “The church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion,” he notes.
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