The combination of recent reports of Pope Francis’s decisions in addressing Vatican leadership crises at the curia and today’s Gospel taken from Mark 1:21-28 about Jesus’s ability to speak as one “with authority,” has me thinking about what it means to be a Christian today and to do so with authority.
Today’s Gospel begins:
Jesus came to Capernaum with his followers,
and on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught.
The people were astonished at his teaching,
for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.
The scribes, those who were something like our modern-day Canon lawyers or perhaps even some ecclesiastical bureaucrats, spoke with an authority that came from interpretations of the law and the exercise of power in a traditional way. Jesus was often critical of those in positions of religious leadership because he saw certain inauthenticity in their words and deeds (think of the admonition about bowls clean on the outside but dirty within).
Jesus comes onto the scene and the people were “astonished at his teaching” not because he was some sort of brilliant legal expert or politically well-connected or had some impressive credentials. His teaching shocked hearers because it bore an authority rooted in an authentic embrace of God’s will demonstrated by both word and deed. His ministry of healing, of forgiveness, of love, of reconciliation, of mission — this is what conveyed an authority novel to those used to the old forms of religious leadership.
Nearly two-millennia later, Pope Francis appears on the scene. The Bishop of Rome has captured the attention of the whole world, teaching and acting “as one having authority” and not as those who have typically been in similar positions of leadership.
Pope Francis is, to be clear, not Jesus. He is a priest and a bishop, like so many others. However, what distinguishes him is the way in which he can convey a sense of authenticity in his words and deeds that demonstrates a leadership and authority more akin to Jesus’s than to that of the typical curial bureaucrat or ladder-climbing cleric. And he’s not only teaching with words, but acting with this astonishing authority.
Today the New York Times reported:
To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.
The response has been striking, eliciting for me an image of what the pharisees and scribes must have felt when Jesus was exposing the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of so many of them. The Times article continues with a comment about the way in which some of Pope Francis’s decisions to restructure the curia and refocus the attitude and mission of its staffers has been received.
Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop.
“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like many others, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”
It will be interesting to see how this will reckoning will proceed. It didn’t, as history and our faith tradition knows so well, end well for Jesus of Nazareth. It is my hope and prayer that those whose selfish ambition and political aspirations are increasingly spurned don’t follow suit. Pope Francis continues to astonish me with the authority of his words and deeds in the most positive and hopeful ways. May we continue to hear the Spirit who calls us to return to our faith, to the Gospel, to the authority of Jesus that heals rather than breaks, that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and that reveals the merciful and compassionate face of God rather than the selfish ambition of individuals.