National Catholic Reporter senior analyst Thomas Reese, S.J., shares his thoughts on how Pope Francis might reform the Catholic church.

Thomas Reese, S.J., senior analyst at the National Catholic Reporter and visiting scholar at SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, recently spoke on the new Pope and reform in the Church. Reese was formerly the editor of America magazine and has written a trilogy of books examining Catholic church organization and politics on the local, national, and international levels.

Following is an edited transcript of his talk.



I could go on and on and on for a week talking about Pope Francis, but I’m going to try and be focused in looking at how Pope Francis might reform the Church.

The first signal he gave us about who he is was when he chose his name: Francis. And it was after Francis of Assisi. At first, people weren’t sure which Francis it was—Francis Xavier, the Jesuit Francis? I was kidding some of my journalist friends. I said, “No, no. It’s not Francis of Assisi, it’s not Francis Xavier, it’s Francis Borgia.”

But it was Saint Francis of Assisi, and what was Saint Francis of Assisi known for? Well there’s a great story about him. He was walking through the forest and he heard this voice say, “Rebuild my church.” So he found this dilapidated chapel in the middle of the forest and he got out his hammer and saw and started fixing it up, and God said, “No, stupid, the whole church!”

So that was the beginning of Saint Francis’ work in reforming the church. And a big part of that was his life of poverty—his simplicity—because the Church was very rich and corrupt at that time. He started the whole Franciscan movement and was very much a reformer in the Church. His name is also connected with a great love for the poor, and we see this in Pope Francis, also.

After Francis chose his name, we got to see him, and what we saw was this very simple style of being a pope. No red cape. No red shoes. No gold cross. No jewels. None of that stuff. He had a very simple lifestyle, as opposed to Pope Benedict who, I felt, had a very elegant style—you know, classy. If you like that kind of style, as opposed to some people in the Curia, who have no class at all. In any case, we’re not going to see this kind of thing under Pope Francis.

And then, when he came out on the balcony after his election, the first thing he said was, “Before I bless you, I want you to pray over me.” He bowed his head, and the cardinals standing around him didn’t know what was going on. “Are we supposed to bow?” But the people in the plaza, they just raised their hands and silently prayed over the pope. I mean, this is cool.

And then we started seeing him do things. He walked into his hotel and said, “I’m here to pay my bill.” Uh, the pope is here. So he just goes and pays his bills. Then, of course, he refused to live in the papal apartments. And he got rid of the Mercedes. And at first he rode around in a Ford Focus—and Ford must have loved that one, the papal car.

But he’s into this much more simple style. The Vatican has a parish church. It’s Saint Anne’s. The people living in the parish who are working in the Vatican can go to Mass there. And Francis says, “I’ll say mass at the parish church.” And he does, just like a simple pastor. And when Mass is over, he’s at the door shaking hands with everybody as they leave.

And then he blew everybody’s mind on Holy Thursday. The Vatican put out the schedule: He will be washing the feet of priests in Saint Peter’s. But somebody forgot to ask him what his plans were, and he says, “No, I’m going to the juvenile prison and we’re going to have Mass there and we’re going to wash the feet of the kids.” Well, there were young men and young women, boys and girls, and he washed their feet. There happened to be a Muslim girl there, too, and he says, “Okay. We’ll wash her feet, too.”

And this upset the conservatives because the liturgical rules say “men”—for you Latin scholars, it’s vir, not hominem. It’s viri—male men.

But he didn’t care.

And then, of course, he became the cold call pope. He started phoning people. He phoned his newspaper delivery guy in Buenos Aires and said, “I’m not coming back, so you can stop delivering the paper.” He called the Jesuit Superior General. He didn’t have the direct number, so he called the switchboard and said, “This is Pope Francis.” You know, there was panic. And he’s called about three or four times since, and he keeps going through the switchboard and asking the switchboard operators, “How are your kids?”

And then he’s made some really serious calls, too, in answer to letters he received. So what we see is a really pastoral pope, reaching out to people. This is the kind of pope we’ve got now. This is totally consistent with who he is.

When he was in Buenos Aires, he refused to live in the bishop’s palace. He said, “No. I don’t want a chauffeured limousine. I’m taking the bus and the subway.” He cooked his own meals. He didn’t go out, he’d invite people in and cook for them. Art Liebscher, a Jesuit here at SCU, tells a story about when he did dishes with the pope. So this is the kind of guy he is.

Now some people say, “So what? This is just style. This is just symbolic. When is he going to get real?” Well, I would argue that in the Catholic church, style is substance.

Basically, what he’s doing is changing the culture of this institution called the Catholic church. You can change laws, but people can ignore them. You’ve got to change the culture of an institution, and that’s what he’s doing. Everything he’s done that I’ve talked about is a direct attack on clericalism. He does not like clericalism.

And he’s modeling what it means to be a good priest, what it means to be a good bishop. He is somebody who is pastoral, who reaches out, who has a simple lifestyle, who is there with the people.

So what does it mean to be a good priest? A good priest is a guy who works down in the slums, in the inner city with the poor people. That’s who he holds up as a good priest, not somebody who’s got cufflinks and the perfect haircut and lace surpluses.

We are a church of symbols. Symbols are the way we communicate. The sacraments are symbols, sacramental signs that give grace. So symbols and style are important.


Let’s get into how the pope thinks about different things.

What’s he think about sex abuse? He’s for zero tolerance. In talking about the American bishops, he said he thought it was a stupid idea of transferring priests from one parish to another. This does not fix the problem. And he says that they just have to be removed from the priesthood.

And he’s against this whole idea that we have to protect the image of the institution, that that really led us astray. And he says, “We cannot turn a blind eye to abuse.” So this is where he comes from and zero tolerance is going to be the law of the land in the Catholic church.

What’s he think about celibacy? Well, he wrote this wonderful book called On Heaven and Earth with the chief rabbi in Buenos Aires, and it was kind of a dialog going back and forth. So at one point, the rabbi says, “What’s this celibacy business? We don’t do that in the Jewish community. Rabbis don’t have to be celibate.”

So he responds, “Well, we actually do have some married priests in the eastern churches, in the Byzantine Catholic churches, in the Ukrainian Catholic churches, but not in the Latin Catholic church. This is a matter of law. It’s not a matter of faith or doctrine.”

That’s pretty much standard teaching. But that’s what he says first in response. He doesn’t start with saying, “Oh, celibacy is wonderful.” He starts with saying, “It’s not a matter of faith.” Now he does go on to say, “I’m in favor of celibacy.” But he doesn’t give some big, long, theological justification for it. He basically says, “It’s worked for 10 centuries and tradition has weight and validity. It’s been a good experience in the Church.” So he’s not giving a big, heavy-handed argument.

What’s interesting, though, is every time he says something positive about celibacy or says he likes it, it’s qualified. This is really interesting. “For the moment, I’m in favor of maintaining celibacy.” “For now, the discipline of celibacy stands firm.” I kind of fell over when I read this. I said, “This is significant.” And I did a piece in the NCR on this back in March, right after he got elected, with the headline “Does the Pope Support Optional Celibacy?” I think he does.

He even goes on to say, “If, hypothetically, western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons, as in the east, not so much as a universal option.” What’s he saying here? What I think he’s saying is that he’s not going to get up and say, “Everybody can get married tomorrow.” It’s going to be each region of the world or countries or bishops’ conferences discussing this and maybe making the decision for what’s good in their cultural pastoral context. I think this is where we may be heading.

On celibacy, though, he is very strict. Basically, if you’re not observing celibacy, you’re out. There’s no halfway merit here. There’s no [allowing for a] mistress on the side, as long as nobody knows. If you cannot practice celibacy, you should leave. And he says, “I’d rather have a good layperson than a bad priest.” He hates hypocrisy. The double life, he says, is no good for us.

He goes even further. He says, “If a priest gets a woman pregnant, he has to leave because he has to be a father for that child. That obligation to the child is more important than his obligation as a priest.” Wow. This is not what we’ve said in the past. He’s got a very different attitude towards this. It’s really the human obligation as a father that trumps celibacy.

What about denying communion? You know that’s been a big issue in the United States, denying communion to pro-choice politicians or pro-choice Catholics. What’s he said about that? ; He says, “One could deny communion to a public sinner who has not repented, but it’s very difficult to check such things.”

That’s very much the position of people like Cardinal George in Chicago and others who have said, “I don’t want my priests playing cop at the communion rail.”

So what’s very interesting about Francis—or Bergoglio at the time—was the whole discussion of denying communion did not come up in the context of abortion. It came up in the context of justice. He said, “Those who have not only killed intellectually or physically, but also who have killed indirectly through the poor use of resources by paying unjust wages.”

So if you are paying unjust wages, then you ought to consider maybe you should not go to communion. Or if you’re paying your help under the table, you should think about whether you are a good Christian and should be going to communion. So this is a very different approach to the whole communion issue than we’ve seen here in the United States.

He calls these people who pay their help under the table or don’t pay just wages “pretend Catholics.” They’ll set up a big charity and get their pictures taken as they’re handing out bags of food to the poor, but meanwhile, in their factory, everybody’s getting low wages. He says, “That’s hypocritical. That’s pretend Catholicism.”

What about the appointment of bishops? This is where the rubber hits the road for most of us because this can have a tremendous impact on the life of your diocese. Here in San Jose, we have a wonderful bishop. That’s why we pray for his good health every day.

But who comes after him? Well, the pope said to his nuncios, his representatives around the world who send names to Rome for nominating bishops, “These are the kind of people I want as bishops. People who are close to the people, who act like fathers and brothers.” He has this wonderful phrase: “They should smell like their sheep.”

They’re mixing in with the sheep, not standing above the sheep with a whip. No, they should smell like their sheep. They should be gentle, patient, merciful, and also exhibit outward simplicity. This is the kind of person he wants them to look like. He does not want princes or people who think they’re princes to be bishops.

What he didn’t do was put a big stress on loyalty or orthodoxy, which have been the criteria of the last two papacies. Anybody who ever said something about married clergy or not liking the translation of the liturgy, or whatever, never would be made a bishop. That doesn’t seem to be the criteria anymore.


What about his pastoral priorities for the Church? He has often talked about a poor church for the poor. This is his image of what the Church should be like. Not a rich institution that is there to serve the comfortable people, but a church for the poor. So there’s a big stress on justice, on charity, and on love as a priority.

He also talks about the Church as a reconciler. He really wants to bring people together, not to be a divider, not to proclaim a divisive message. He wants to bring people together, to stress what we share together, to stress that we are one family, and that it’s a merciful, loving God that we worship. It’s a church of the heart. I love this phrase.

He says that we’ve reduced our way of speaking about mystery to rational explanations. But for ordinary people, the mystery enters through the heart. This is very interesting. We look upon Pope Benedict and Pope John as these great teachers, these great intellectuals, but frankly, half of the encyclicals that Pope John Paul wrote, I couldn’t understand. They were stylistically written badly and the language is abstract and obtuse. And even some of Benedict’s; Benedict was a little better writer, but even there, you gotta have a graduate theological student to understand half of what he’s saying. And Francis is saying, “No. You don’t go through the head. You go through the heart with people.”

I think this is something big—it’s got to be a simple message. We lose people because they don’t understand what we’re saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people.

He also speaks about being a church of Emmaus. What’s he mean? Well, he uses this image of Emmaus, the two disciples who leave Jerusalem, as an image of all the people who have left the Church. And why have they left the Church? If you asked Benedict and John Paul, it was always relativism, consumerism—blame the people.

But Francis says, “Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, too distant from their needs, too poor to respond to their concerns, too cold, too caught up with itself, a prisoner of its own rigid formulas. The world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions. Perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy, but not to those who have come of age.”

I think basically what we see here is that he gets it. He understands why a lot of people have left the Church and he’s not blaming them. He said this as a bishop in Latin America. The bishops in Latin America hate the evangelicals and others stealing their sheep. He would say, “Hey, if all these people are leaving, maybe we need to look at ourselves and what we’re doing wrong.”



We need a church unafraid of going forth into the night. We need a church capable of meeting people on their way. We need a church capable of entering into a conversation, able to dialog with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly alone, with their own disappointments, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.

And he goes on: “Are we still a church capable of warming hearts? A church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem, of bringing them home?” What’s Jerusalem for him? It’s where our roots are. It’s scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord and Mary and the apostles. Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?”

So, again, you see it is the beauty and wonder of the message of the gospel that’s going to win people over, not theological arguments, not a debate. The Church is not the Oxford debate, it’s the beauty and warmth of the message.

And then he goes after the bishops. He doesn’t do it with the people, but he does it with the bishops. “Unless we train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoging with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness, what hope can we have for our present and future journey?”

People aren’t leaving the Church because they disagree with us about some doctrinal issue. It’s because we’re boring. We’re not touching their lives.

The Church needs to be maternal, and again, he stresses, “Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of the world of wounded persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, and love.” And I think we’re going to see some progress made on responding to the needs of divorce and remarried Catholics under this message.

He says, “Let us not reduce the involvement of women in the church, but instead promote their active role in the ecclesial community. By losing women, the Church risks becoming sterile.”

Then he throws some questions at the bishops. “Do we see to it that our work and that of our priests is more pastoral than administrative? Are we creating a proactive mindset?” I love this—a proactive mindset. He asks, “Do we promote opportunities and possibilities to manifest God’s mercy? Do we make the lay faithful share in the mission, in their part of spreading the gospel?

“Are there real opportunities? Do we give the laity the freedom to continue discerning in a way befitting their growth as disciples the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or”—I always have trouble with this word—“infantalize them”? Make them babies.


Pope Francis wants a pastoral church preaching a gospel-based message of love, compassion, and justice, not a nagging church wagging its finger at us. And Christianity is spread through the witness of love and service, not through argument. It’s the heart, not the head that he wants to stress.

And finally, he doesn’t use the word, but I think he’s promoting an entrepreneurial church. He talks about leaving the sacracy behind and going out into the street. And I love this sentence: “I prefer a church that makes mistakes because it is doing something to one that sickens because it stays shut in.”

So that’s Pope Francis and his agenda for reforming the church.

post-image Photo by Mazur/
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