Stifling or Releasing the Spirit?

The structures of the Church at the Vatican levels are a tight knit and closed system, especially so when it comes to the transfer of power from one pope to the next. However, the process is not based on anything in the founding years of the Church.
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Someone once said that reform can come in one of two ways: shifting around within an existing closed system or shifting the processes of the system so that something that is entirely other can emerge. With the resignation of Benedict XVI, the question of reform in the Church is surfacing yet again. The structures of the Church at the Vatican levels are a tight knit and closed system, especially so when it comes to the transfer of power from one pope to the next. However, the process is not based on anything in the founding years (the first 350-400 years) of the Church. It is a construct of history from the fifth-20th centuries, now "up-dated" with John Paul II's defining of the process to be followed. It is shrouded in secrecy and the outcome is not indicative of the universal Church as it exists today. To put it very bluntly, the group of electors consists of 117 old men who were chosen by two other old men, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and these old men will elect yet another old man, all clerics.

Even the 117 cardinals and their country of origin reveal a long dead Church geographically. There are 61 of them from Europe alone, with the largest group being from Italy with 21. Latin America has 19, 14 from North America and 11 from both Asia and Africa, with one lone vote from Oceania. And yet in reality the bulk of Catholics (1.2 billion) are from Africa, Asia and Latin America. In regards to gender, geography, age and life-style none of them are reflective of the actual Church, the Body of Christ.

Benedict has said that he resigned for health reasons. With the age of those in the pool of those who can be elected this is going to continue to be a problem. But there is already another huge problem that has not ever been addressed: The Church is no longer "Roman" and no one person can oversee (the original meaning of the word: bishop) the entire world -- 1.2 billion Catholics in a sea of over 7 billion human beings.

Traditionally the pope was chosen in public by all the people of the Church. Cyrpian of Carthage, North Africa in the third century wrote: "It comes from divine authority that a bishop be chosen in the presence of the people before the eyes of all and that he be approved worthy and fit by public judgment and testimony" (quoted by Richard McBrien in an article in the Prairie Messenger May 25, 2011). Or as Pope Leo the Great in the mid fifth century wrote: "He who is to preside over all, must be elected by all." By the 10th century there is not a hint that the office of pope was decided upon by the people of God.

What would a structure or process of election look like today? It is time for a radical shift in the process so that the Spirit can move through the whole church not in a small group of its aging men, cardinals/clerics all. In light of the fact that no one person can be expected, even at the height of physical strength to oversee such a huge institution perhaps another approach could be envisioned.

This is one such idea -- a jumping off place perhaps to begin to devise an alternative election process (using the word election liturgically to mean called forth to serve the people in the Body of Christ). First, a bishop should be appointed an interim administrator while the process is put in place -- from now until, say, the first Sunday of Advent at the end of November this year. And then two simultaneous processes would be set in motion -- one paralleling the other with the major difference of one enacted among the clergy/bishops, cardinals, etc., and one among the people of God (referred to as the lay people). The process would take place in each of the geographical areas of the world: North America (US and Canada), South America (Central and South), Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, including Oceania. Each of these six regions would call forth three individuals by name, surfacing them through the churches/parishes/dioceses, etc. Each of the three individuals would write a short vision of the Church that they see over the next seven years and a video that introduces them to their own area and to the world -- welcome to the Internet! Eventually one would be chosen to represent that area with the other two serving as consultors. This would happen among those chosen by the hierarchy and those chosen by the people. Then from among all those chosen by each group, one would be chosen who would be the symbolic visionary leader of all the Church.

The Internet is the way to go! There is no need for all the cardinals to meet in Rome at enormous expense when the process of election can be done with transparency, in public, and set up as inter-continental conferences online. And some new criteria must be introduced. The ecclesiastical members can choose a priest, deacon, bishop or cardinal as they wish with the stipulation that they cannot be over the age of 67 and must retire at the age of 73. The people of God can choose anyone: male/female, married, single, widowed, divorced anyone --but in the original three from each geographical area there must be at least one woman. The one chosen from the ranks of the clergy will be the liturgical head of the Church and the one chosen from the people of God will be the pastoral or prophetic leader of the Church. Both will be seen as equal before God and the people in their leadership roles. (When the people were led out of bondage in Egypt there were three leaders: Moses, the visionary prophet; Aaron the administrator, priest; and Miriam, the one who let them liturgically and was the water diviner that kept the people aware of their water sources.)

A process like this would reflect not only the actual members of the Church, but its place in the world today. Of course, there will be snags, mistakes, blunders and an awkward sense of what everyone is doing. But if we believe that the Spirit is alive in the Church then this is a chance to set the Spirit loose among all the people of God and see what amazing graces are among us waiting to be uncovered and called forth. And with our faith in the Incarnation -- God becoming human and dwelling still among us and the Resurrection -- the power of the Risen Lord with us, then everything we try is redeemable and in the mess of the moment the energy of the Spirit will lead inevitably to imaginative, creative and contemporary ways of being Church in the world today. The prophet Isaiah sang out: "See I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?" (42:9). It is time to dare to release the Spirit among us.

Megan McKennia is a renowned Catholic theologian, lecturer and author of 50 books including the recently released: LIKE A HAMMER SHATTERING ROCK: Hearing the Gospels Today (Random House). McKenna has lived, visited and gypsied through North and South America (especially Bolivia/Peru), Europe and a collection of islands: Celtic, Japanese, the Philippines, Singapore, Haiti and the Hawaiian Islands to name a few. Mckenna works with indigenous groups, in base Christian Communities and with justice and peace groups as well as parishes, dioceses and religious communities. She has been on the United States National Board of Pax Christi and in 2002 was appointed an Ambassador of Peace for Pax Christi. Visit:

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