Pope Francis continues to tickle my faith! Daily summaries of his homilies and audiences provide a wealth of one-liners. Three months after his election, a clear agenda has emerged and it’s an agenda that many of us have been yearning for. The new pope not only promotes a preferential option for the poor; he is also calling the church to a more simple and humble life. He is pushing priests and bishops to spend more time with the people and less time in rectories and chanceries. In doing so, he is showing no patience for clericalism, over the top liturgical finery, or wealthy life-styles.
In a June 6 speech to students from the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Francis declared that “Careerism is a leprosy, a leprosy….Please, no careerism!” His words were addressed to future Vatican Diplomats, where eagerness to move up in the ranks of power and prestige would seem natural.
We probably all know a priest or two who can be described as a ‘careerist’. They are the ones who promote a priesthood of prestige and privilege. They view each parish not by its unique gifts, but whether it is a promotion or demotion in the diocesan play-book. You can almost see the coveting glitter of a purple or red zucchetto and sash in their eyes.
For some, the careerism doesn’t end with an episcopal appointment or entrance into the College of Cardinals. In recent years, being extra vocal on culture issues seemed to guarantee a boost up the hierarchical ladder. Judgmental finger-wagging and threats of excommunications might have divided local churches and turned many faithful away, but they didn’t seem to care. A ‘leaner and purer’ church was the desire, and promotions were usually around the corner for these bellicose church leaders; bishops became archbishops; archbishops were given cardinal hats; cardinals were sent to plum positions at the Vatican.
The evil fruit of careerism brings rot to any organization. A sense of community is replaced with feuding fiefdoms. Collaboration is replaced with territorialism and infighting. Dialogue is replaced with self-important voices cranking up the volume to drown out all dissenters.
Talk of the dysfunction within the Vatican surrounded the resignation of Benedict XVI. It also became the focus of pre-conclave chatter about the qualities needed for our new pope. Can we expect one man to clean up the current mess?
Pope Francis is giving us hope. By singling out the destructive effects of careerism in the organizational church, he is taking the first step towards a possible strategy for reform. We now have a pope who is intentional in modelling and living a servant leadership; not just for photo-ops but in his day to day style. Pope Francis’s obvious disdain for priests, bishops and cardinals who seek power and prestige over pastoral care of God’s people might be the first signal that he is able to steer the barque of Peter onto a new course.
A new direction needs new leaders, and the pope has significant power in choosing these leaders. The current crop of bishops and cardinals were all appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI over many years. Though there are many good men among them, there are too many careerists. Now that Pope Francis is making his leadership preferences known, it will be interesting to see how this will play out. Will those who yearn for episcopal promotions begin to fall over each other trying to mirror the new pope’s style in hopes of being noticed?
My prediction is that the new bishops and cardinals will be named in a similar way that our new pope was elected. They will be pastoral men who don’t seek the limelight. When their names are announced, it will come as a complete surprise to most; but not to those who know them well. Their appointments will not be seen as a logical step on a well-recognized trajectory to ecclesial promotion.
Francis has joked that anyone who bet the 76-year-old Jesuit from Argentina would become Supreme Pontiff likely made a lot of money. Here’s to more bishops and cardinals who come to us in surprising ways, ready to open wide the windows to let in much needed reform and freshness of spirit.