Pope Francis and the Reform of the Laity

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father has identified ecclesiastical narcissism as the fundamental illness the Church needs to address.

(photo: CNA/Stephen Driscoll)

The reform of the Church already evident in the words and witness of Pope Francis may be starting, but it won’t be stopping at the revamping of the Vatican Curia and the renewal of the clergy.

It also will involve a thorough reform of the laity, since some of the cancers the cardinals elected him to confront in Rome have metastasized throughout Christ’s mystical body.

In his conclave-changing address to the cardinals four days before his election, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio identified what he believes is the Church’s fundamental illness: ecclesiastical narcissism.

“When the Church does not come out of itself to evangelize,” he said, “it becomes self-referential and then gets sick.”

That inward-looking Church, which doesn’t look sufficiently to Christ and doesn’t reflect him, his light and his love for those walking in darkness, quickly succumbs to what he called the worst evil of all, a “spiritual worldliness … living in itself, of itself, for itself.”

That, for him, is the fundamental corruption of the Church that needs to be reformed.

The future Pope then gave what would become his own job description at the end of his five-minute intervention: “The next pope,” he declared, must be a man who, “from the contemplation of Jesus Christ and from worshipping Jesus Christ, will help the Church get out of herself and go to those on the outskirts of existence.”

That spiritual exodus, he believes, is the fundamental conversion that the Church needs — and it’s one on which he wants to lead not only priests and curial officials, but laypeople.

“It’s key that we Catholics, both clergy and laity, go out to meet the people,” he stressed in the 2010 book-length interview El Jesuita.

This is “not only because her mission is to announce the Gospel, but because failing to do so harms us. … A Church that limits herself to administering parish work, that lives enclosed within a community, experiences what someone in prison does: physical and mental atrophy.”

A Church that merely protects its small flock, that gives all or most of its attention to its faithful clientele, he believes, “is a Church that is sick.”  

In a 2011 interview with an Argentinian Catholic news agency, he said this contagious spiritual sickness comes from a clericalism that passes from clergy to laypeople.

“We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap — it is a sinful complicity.”

Clericalization means focusing fundamentally on the things of the clergy and, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than on bringing the Gospel to the world.

Clericalism ails the clergy when they become too self-referential rather than missionary. But it afflicts laypeople worse, when they begin to believe that the fundamental service God is asking of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at Church rather than to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and beyond.

The reform that’s needed, he continued in that interview, is “neither to clericalize nor ask to be clericalized. The layperson is a layperson and has to live as a layperson with the power of baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life. And, like all of us, the layperson is called to carry his daily cross — the cross of the layperson, not of the priest.”

One of the wild grapes that flows from the vine of clericalism, the future Pope said in El Jesuita, is a hypercritical spirit that leads some Catholic priests and faithful to expend most of their energy censuring others inside and outside the Church rather than seeking to live and share the joy of the Christian faith.

“This is a problem not only for priests,” he said, “but also for laypeople. One isn’t a good Catholic when he is looking only for the negative, for what separates us. This isn’t what Jesus wants.”

Such unredeemed behavior — found regularly in personal conversations, blogs, comment boxes and Internet video analyses — “mutilates the message” of the Christian faith and scares people away from it, he said.

Firing vitriolic criticism at those with whom one disagrees is not the path of the reform of the laity and the Church.

The true path, rather, was delineated by Cardinal Bergoglio in the final report of the Latin American bishops’ encounter in 2007 with Pope Benedict in Aparecida, Brazil.

Cardinal Bergoglio was the principal author and presenter of the "Aparecida Document," which not only echoes many of his fundamental themes, but is a reliable indicator of his thought.

The reform of the laity, the document says, must involve reforming them to become “missionary disciples in communion.”

Those four words define the lay vocation: converted followers of Jesus, who, together with others, share Jesus’ life and faithfully seek to spread their joy, life and love to those who have not yet come into that twofold communion.

It’s a community of believers trained and inspired to go out to transform politics, society, education, neighborhoods, family and marriages.

It’s a brotherhood of Good Samaritans drawing near to neighbors with love and mercy.

It’s the faithful who are the salt of the earth and not just salty critics of the Church.

It’s a body of torchbearers radiating Christ’s light rather than hiding it within the bushel basket of self-referential, spiritually worldly and ultimately “sick” parochial or diocesan structures.

Pope Francis has begun the exodus leading to this reform, taking us by example to the outskirts of human existence and sketching for us the journey ahead.

The real work, however, still needs to take place in hearts, homes, parishes, movements and schools across the Catholic world.

Father Roger Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Fall River, Massachusetts.

He is national chaplain of Catholic Voices USA.

He provided commentary for EWTN during the recent conclave that elected Pope Francis.