Pope Francis on Tuesday called for big changes in the Roman Catholic Church – including at the very top – saying he knows it will be a messy business but he expects his flock to
dive in feet first.
"I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and
from clinging to its own security," the Pope said in a major new statement.
"I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures."
The Pope's address, called an "apostolic exhortation," is basically a pep talk from the throne of St. Peter. But Francis' bold language and sweeping call for change are likely to surprise even those who've become accustomed to his unconventional papacy.
"Not everyone will like this document," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author in New York. "For it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo."
Officially known in Latin as "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), the 85-page document is the first official papal document written entirely by Francis. (An earlier document was co-written by Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.)
Although Francis sprinkles the statement with citations of previous popes and Catholic luminaries like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, the new pontiff makes a bold call for the church to rethink even long-held traditions.
"In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated," the Pope said.
"Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. At the same time, the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives."
Such statements mark a sharp break from Benedict XVI, a more tradition-bound pope who focused on cleaning up cobwebs of unorthodoxy in the church.
By contrast, in "Evangelii" Francis repeats his calls for Catholics to stop "obsessing" about culture war issues and enforcing church rules, and to focus more on spreading the Gospel, especially to the poor and marginalized.
The church, he said, should not be afraid to "get its shoes soiled by the mud of the street."
The Pope also hinted that he wants to see an end to the so-called "wafer wars," in which Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are denied Holy Communion. His comments could also be taken as another sign that he plans to reform church rules that prevent divorced Catholics from receiving the Eucharist.
"Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason," Francis said.
"The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak."
Even so, Francis reiterated the church's traditional stand against abortion, defending that position against critics who call it "ideological, obscurantist and conservative."
"Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question," Francis said.
The Pope said he expects other parts of the church to change, however, and called on Catholics to be unafraid of trying new things.
"More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving."
Francis didn't mention specific changes, but made it clear he expects them to start at the top and include even long-held Catholic practices.
"Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy," he said.
The church's centralization, where all roads lead to Rome, and the "we've always done it this way" type of thinking have hindered Catholics' ability to minister to local people in far-flung places, Francis suggested.
"I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities," the Pope said.