The Difficulty in Renewing the Church
Feb 13, 2017
Over the past several weeks there has been a major controversy stirring between the Knights of Malta and Pope Francis. It began with the grand master firing the third-in-charge (the chancellor) of the Order because there had been a moment when the Knights were distributing condoms to people in Myanmar (Burma) to help prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases. With Cardinal Burke present, the grand master told the chancellor that Pope Francis was behind this order. This action was taken with no due process. As some in the Order began protesting, the grand master issued a command that no one was to disagree with him and if they did he would kick them out of the Order. When Pope Francis heard of this action he intervened and put together a group to investigate what happened. The grand master protested this action saying that the Knights of Malta are a Sovereign State and the Pope had no business interfering with an internal issue. The Pope responded by ordering the grand master to Rome where he demanded the grand master’s resignation. The resignation happened at that meeting. The Pope then named the Vatican’s Chief of Staff; Archbishop Angelo Becciu, as the extraordinary Papal Delegate to the Order of Malta. In his letter of appointment, he charges Becciu to bring about a spiritual and moral renewal of the Order (which previously was Cardinal Burke’s role) and states: “you will be my only spokesman …with all necessary powers”
Yesterday in Rome there were posters plastered all over with a very dour looking Pope Francis and the headline: “Where is your Mercy”. Then, they accuse him of beheading the Knights of Malta and other actions against conservative groups. Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit who is close to the pope, said in a tweet that they were a sign that Francis was doing a good job and therefore irritating many people.
Aside from being a “great Church story” it also shows how difficult it is to confront and direct a renewal within the Church. Even at the top leadership level there are those who work to undermine the Pope’s guidance. This is not at all new, Pope John XXIII when asked how many people worked at the Vatican replied “about half”. For the most part the fights tend to be kept quiet until those who are opposing the direction of the Church finally break with the Church and form their own Church. It can happen both with liberals or conservatives, depending on how stubborn they are in holding to their own opinion. The Church’s response to this opposition is often to tolerate their point of view as best they can attempting to keep the Body of Christ intact. Then others within the Church begin asking “why do they get away with this?” (whatever “this is” at the moment).
This Pope is taking seriously his mission to renew the Church. His method is to first say what he wants done, and then when there is resistance he begins pushing by sending others to the task and finally, as in the case of the Order of Malta he intervenes with his Papal authority. I have a feeling that Pope Francis would not have taken this on if his name was not invoked in the firing of the chancellor (who, by the way, was re-instated to his position.)
Under Pope Benedict XVI there was a growing sense among the Church leadership that maybe the Church must shrink until only the “truly” faithful are left. The result of that leadership has been seen clearly in the closing of schools and parishes throughout the world. Now with Pope Francis there is clearly a leadership that calls for an outreach to everyone. This a Church that has a heart for the poor and the disenfranchised that acts as a “hospital tent” for those who are suffering (both spiritually and physically). Perhaps Francis will be leading long enough to stop the bleeding and bring about the healing necessary for the Body of Christ to thrive once again.