Catholic paradigm shift: 10 years of Pope Francis dismantling the papal court

Just months after his election in 2013, Pope Francis announced he would break with 400 years of tradition and would no longer spend summer holidays at Castel Gandolfo, a papal villa outside of Rome, instead preferring to remain at the Vatican and work through the summer months.

In a January 2023 interview with the Associated Press, Francis cited his decision not to move to the summer palace, saying, “Castel Gandolfo was a bit of a court. The court spirit. In June, the court was moving there as from London you go to Scotland, the court. It’s that kind of court idea. It’s the last absolute court in Europe.”

His vision for the papacy, he said, is to “remove all appearance of court and to give it what is really a pastoral service.”

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was already known to have moved out of the archbishop’s palace, doing his own cooking and using public transportation.

When he first appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica the night of his election, wearing only a simple white cassock and refusing to don the traditional velvet mozzetta, red shoes and gold pectoral cross for the new pope, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia, recalled being puzzled.

As a one who worked in the papal court, in the Secretariat of State under Pope John Paul II, he thought it looked odd. Then Francis asked those in the square to pray for him before giving them his blessing.

“It was clear this was not business as usual,” Coleridge told NCR, ahead of Francis’ 10-year anniversary. “And it was anything but show biz. One of the things about Francis is the way he has freed himself from the very powerful protocols of the papal court.”

The changes over the last decade, Coleridge notes, are more than cosmetic. It’s a “dismantling of the papal monarchy” where Catholicism’s global leader is shifting the church from what Coleridge describes as a “hierarchical church to a synodal church” and “from a powerful church to a church that is poor and powerless.”

“The paradigm shift that we’ve seen unfolding in these 10 years has been astonishing,” he added, “and it’s something I never thought I’d see.”

New processes for preaching the Gospel

On Oct. 11, 2022, Francis celebrated a Mass marking the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, where he said the 1962-65 council was a moment of “rekindling” the church’s outward-facing mission.

According to Anna Rowlands, a professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in England, the 10 years of the Francis papacy can be viewed not only as “taking us back to certain key teachings of Vatican II” but as the “embedding of the teaching in the church’s practices.”

As Vatican II taught, the church cannot be viewed as a monarchical or vertical institution, according to Rowlands. Instead, the council elevated the importance of the entire church.

“And if we really see the church as the people of God, then what we need to be discerning is what the Spirit is doing amongst the people of God and letting that process speak,” she told NCR.

Italian theologian Andrea Grillo, who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm, concurred.

“Having restored the dynamic side to the Catholic tradition and having overcome a 19th-century model of Catholic vision is the greatest merit of this decade of pontificate,” he told NCR, noting that in the last 10 years, Francis has “unlocked” what was blocking the church’s reform in a number of key areas, such as liturgy, family life and questions of authority.

For Rowlands, one of the main projects of the Francis papacy to date is taking the core theological teachings of the council and “turning those teachings into accessible, meaningful processes so that by recovering the teachings and the process, they become the practices of the institution.”

“And that’s the bit that I think Francis and many others feel has never really happened in terms of the reception of the council,” she added.

Archbishop Roberto González of San Juan, Puerto Rico agreed, saying, “Francis is the most important pope to implement the Second Vatican Council.”

While González said John Paul II began the initiation of the council, and Pope Benedict XVI’s theological writings elevated its importance, Francis has exemplified the implementation of the council with his language, gestures and processes.


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