Pope Francis has collected testimonies of people from various war scenarios to serve as witnesses of the faith at the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum. Their testimonies are anonymous, and the texts were not disclosed in advance, as usual, but only a few hours before the Way of the Cross occurred. Pope Francis seemingly tried to avoid last year’s situation when the news of a prayer by a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman together, in which forgiveness was explicitly spoken of while the war situation was still complex, created a series of discussions. Finally, in 2022 it was decided not to read the texts but to have a moment of silence.

It is not the first time that the Pope decides to avoid controversy. For example, the post-Angelus greetings, which sometimes contain appeals, are not disclosed to journalists under embargo ahead of time since the Pope skipped a statement on the situation in Hong Kong, and a journalist, violating the embargo, pointed that out.

Pope Francis has always chosen a personal approach to his decisions. They often arrive suddenly, outside of any discussion, even when it is evident that the Pope has himself matured them for a long time. Several times, Pope Francis has lamented what he calls criticism no matter what. In the last general audience before Easter, he warned against those who continue to say that the old was good and close themselves off to the new.

And yet, there is a mentality to be understood in this way of operating of Pope Francis. Closing himself to criticism, he avoids listening even to those with a foundation. Above all, there seems to be a gap between Pope Francis’ perception of some issues and what the problems mean.

There is, in fact, a theme that is decisive in the pontificate of Pope Francis and which also risks being at the same time paradoxically controversial: missionary spirit. For Pope Francis, everything must be missionary, and the institutional structures, starting with those in Rome, only hinder the mission of the Church.

Under this conception, we find much of the anti-Roman sentiment that the Church dioceses in the periphery have, which feel little understood by Rome. Pope Francis has not failed to say several times that “the center is best seen from the peripheries”, and to point the finger at the elites in asking for a Church that lives in harmony with the faithful.

This idea is reflected in the reform of the Curia wanted by Pope Francis, with all its practical and philosophical consequences. The mission becomes the center of the mission of the Roman Curia. And this is a Copernican revolution, at least from a philosophical point of view.

The Pope, as an institution, is not the first missionary but the guarantor of the unity of the Church. The Curia helps the Pope preserve the unity of the Church. The purpose of the Curia is not that of mission but that of making sure that all the particular parts of the Church have a meeting point, a guiding star to harmonize with.

The Curia cannot have the missionary task because the missionary spirit starts from the proclamation of Christ but also experience-contingent situations. Before the doctrine, we look at people. But it is the single doctrine that allows the Church to be missionary, to have a center, to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Doctrine is a guarantee of unity, just as institutions are a guarantee of freedom. Naturally, each situation must be managed as needed, but always remembering that there is a single point of reference.

When the purpose of the Curia becomes missionary, practical needs become the center. But if particular needs are the polar star, then the risk is that everyone will go adrift.

Pope Francis often describes the Church as the “Holy Hierarchical Mother.” But how can this hierarchy be applied if there is no center? The Pope, already in his first speech from the loggia of blessings on March 13, 2013, underlined that the Church of Rome “presides in charity” all the other Churches. But how can she preside in charity if she then has to adapt to local situations?

This underlying philosophy leads to the Pope being the first missionary. Pope Francis does not speak as a Pope but as a universal shepherd of the world. Therefore, he does not consider his diplomatic, social, political, or cultural role unless, in this role, he finds a way to carry out what he considers his mission. His guiding principle is to show closeness to situations, even against every opinion or eventuality. After all, the Pope does not want to hear criticism because he does not feel understood in his mission as a universal pastor. But, at the same time, avoiding criticism, he does not understand how this way of operating can affect the papacy.

The confusion might begin in the peripheries when the center becomes missionary and therefore carries out a different task from the one it would be responsible for. China, for the second time, has snubbed the Holy See after the second renewal of the agreement on the appointment of bishops by establishing a bishop in Shanghai, Joseph Shen Bin without the approval of the Pope. Previously, China had installed an auxiliary of an extensive diocese that exists only in the subdivision of the dioceses conceived by Beijing and not in the one designed by the Holy See.

The problem is not the agreement – similar agreements were also made with other Eastern European countries during the Cold War, such as Hungary – but precisely the fact that, since there is no center and having a Pope who places religious and personal commitment above all, Beijing knows it has a small opening to act, and which will only attract minimal protests, if any.

The Synodal Path of Germany was established with the notion of making binding decisions on matters of doctrine. It is moving forward despite opposition from the Vatican and Pope Francis. And it can afford to go ahead precisely because if the center is missionary, the risk of a schism becomes much lower. Furthermore, if the center is missionary, the different national communities of the Church have a greater weight than the universal Church. That matters too.

Then there are the various interpretations given to Amoris Laetitia, which are the fruit of the idea of an “always open synod,” which, in the end, does not provide answers but provokes questions. Pope Francis wants to open processes, and he does it continuously. The reality is that this continuous opening of processes makes us lose sight of the Church’s true objective.

Pope Francis seems to fail to understand that he no longer speaks in a personal capacity but in the name of the Church. He is not an individual who has been called to a government position, but he has a spiritual task that is far more than just a mission and that certainly goes beyond his image of himself.

Every word of the Pope is destined to carry weight, and this last Way of the Cross will undoubtedly have it. However, Pope Francis has nevertheless shown that he fears public opinion by deciding not to disseminate the texts in advance. Criticisms are considered personal and not against the role of pope. The way to avoid them is to hide what is being done until the end, presenting it as a fait accompli to everyone.

And yet, this missionary Church and “field hospital” seem to have lost this sense of unity. If it becomes a group of national Church communities, with all its peculiarities, it will no longer be different from the Orthodox world. If carried forward starting from the conferences of bishops, it will be a path guided by a pragmatic point of view which cannot be that of the Universal Church.

These are reflections worth engaging in, considering that every gesture of the pontificate is a sign, and to attempt to understand what will come after Francis.


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