John Paul II is a saint. In my mind, there is no doubt about it. But even saints carry scars of the human condition by which we are wounded in our earthly journey. He was not perfect; in some ways, he was quite flawed. The recent report about former cardinal Theodore McCarrick reveals how the deceased pontiff willfully contributed to unhealthy and unholy happenings in our church. When the bishops of America assembled virtually last week for their annual fall meeting, Bishop Bob Barron called church leadership during that time “sclerotic, dysfunctional, self-protective, and self-referential.” Though a sanctified vessel for our earthly journey, the Catholic Church, like each of us, is scarred and wounded, flawed and sinful. Most of today’s bishops are admitting it, even if reluctantly. This is a good thing!
When John Paul II was pope, he took the church to the world. He made over one hundred foreign trips, more than all his predecessors combined, and he traveled nearly a million miles. Younger and more physically fit than other popes, he, in the Polish tradition of pilgrimage, was often absent from the Vatican. Though the ole adages that “no one was watching the fort” or “when the cat is away the mice will play” may not be exactly true, it was clear even back then that the business of the Vatican, from banking to clerical misuse of power, from McCarrick to Marcial Maciel (Vatican favorite who was a notorious sexual predator), was chaotic. When Jesus was on earth, He cleansed the temple. That, too, was a good thing!
“Sclerotic” comes from sclerosis and means rigid, stiff, frozen. The popular image of a deer in headlights captures well churchmen’s typical responses to untoward incidents until bishops could confer with one another to present a consistent response that usually protected and referenced itself and earlier statements it made to ensure continuity of thought. But it seems to me that bishops today are becoming bolder in showing allegiance to Christ first, instead of to the rigid, stiff, frozen pronouncements under which church leaders often initially sought shelter. The manner by which McCarrick’s rise to power was handled makes these bishops so angry that they want to channel the passion of Jesus who cleansed the temple long ago. This is a very good thing!
It is reported that when Pope Francis was archbishop in Argentina, he dreaded going to Rome because, to him, it represented everything that was wrong with the church. As biographer Austen Ivereigh tells it, church government was so far from his people, literally and figuratively, that the future pope viewed the epicenter of our religion to be “luxurious, ostentatious, bureaucratic, and self-referential.” Common Catholics couldn’t relate. It seems to me that we have some strong and compassionate bishops in America from Los Angeles and San Diego to Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a smattering of others in between who understand this well and want to reverse the frozen-chosen attitude of recent decades. They admit, unlike their predecessors, that Christ and the church are not synonymous; they can see the faults of our church and her leaders, realizing that we have much work to do; they recognize that there are immense opportunities before us to become what God calls us to be and not what we have been for too long: sclerotic and self-referential. If others among them will join to hear the cries of the poor and victimized, it will be a very, very good thing!
When Francis accepted the papacy, he did so as penance—for both his own sins and those of the church. Though he must deal with forces that still want to return to chilling ways prominent when all the shenanigans were happening, he is determined to help heal hurts and warm hearts of millions who have been injured or offended and help his universal flock seek holiness in Christ’s truth and mercy. Joined by the voices of some brave bishops, he is proclaiming what many people have been murmuring for ages: that the church needs serious reform and renewal led by people in the pews, not by ecclesiastics in diocesan chanceries or Vatican dicasteries. If this happens, it would, indeed, be a great thing for all!