Frederick Schmidt: We Need a Francis


As I follow the news about the ministry of Pope Francis, I'm often struck by the way in which people project their personal expectations on his ministry.  People seem to expect him to function like a progressive Protestant or hope that he will.

That, it seems to me, is unrealistic.  His training and orientation to the world is decidedly Catholic, which should be no surprise, and he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.  His position in the Catholic Church also requires far more of him than the average Protestant leader.  He doesn't bear responsibility for a national denomination, nor is his relationship with the rest of the world akin to a loose partnership.  He is part of and at the top of a hardwired, international church.  The decisions he makes might resonate one way with parishes in North America, although truth be told, there will be a lot of variety.  But no matter how welcome a decision might be here, it will inevitably register in other ways around the world, and as Pope, he is obligated to take those differences seriously.

That said, Francis has taken a different approach to his papacy in ways that signal a visual and symbolic, if not always substantive difference from his predecessors.  He has held some of the trappings and comforts of his office at arm's length.  He has distanced himself physically from the curia and subjected their behavior to public criticism.  He has diversified the leadership in Rome, introducing voices from Africa and other parts of the world.  And he has signaled pastoral sensitivity to those who live at the fringes of the Roman Catholic Church.

All of this has me thinking.  We Episcopalians need a Francis.  Not a Pope, but a Presiding Bishop who will strike out in a decisive, fresh, and new direction.  Someone who will abandon the Second Avenue Penthouse and trim the New York bureaucracy by forcing everyone to justify their existence in direct and accountable ways to the needs of the local church.  Someone who will manage the business of the church from the diocese where he or she now lives and who will conduct business with a part-time secretary and a far more modest travel budget than the one given to the current officer holder.  Someone who will schedule meetings for the House of Bishops in places that are representative and accessible to the church, rather than exotic and far-flung.  Someone who will get back in touch with people in the pews and priests behind our churches' altars.  Someone who will do it all with a depth of spiritual and theological gravitas that centers her or his tenure.  Someone who can articulate a vision rather than modulate delicate answers to hot-button questions that leave everyone thinking they've found their soul-mate.

Can we expect that to happen at this late stage in the endless jockeying for the position that takes shape slowly and subtly over the years between General Conventions?  It's doubtful.  But we can press for it.  And just as an unexpected surprise emerged from the global ranks of the Catholic Church, perhaps we can find someone who will rise to the occasion.

If we press for it... and why not?

We are well on our way to becoming the best-dressed sect in America.  The institutions of our church that grounded our presence in our nation's metropolitan centers are being sold off with ever-greater frequency.  And the "big think" that was meant to restructure the national church's work lurched between unworkable and incoherent.

The life and wellbeing of institutions cannot be reduced to the contribution of individual leaders, but the power and potential of a leader's vision - as illustrated by Francis - is undeniable.  The easiest and worst thing possible would be to wander into life as usual.  So, let's find our Francis.  It won't address all of the issues we face, but it can help and it might make all the difference.

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