With three bold reforms, Pope Francis can reinvigorate the billion-strong Catholic tradition, spur a renaissance in church attitudes, bring redemption for past failings, and give hope to the many poor and ordinary people of our world.
While predecessor popes sought to circle the wagons in defense, evangelize and convert the rest of the world, since becoming head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has sought instead to "convert the church." The last 50 years have seen the priorities and conduct of the Catholic Church become muddled. The church has had an abundance of leaders, but a deficit of real leadership. But in 2013, the extraordinary happened, Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis.
A rare man and gifted leader, who lives the message of Jesus.
The reforms needed today are right in front of us, but they will not be easily seen.
First, the mandatory retirement age for bishops and cardinals should be dropped to age 70. Exceptional leaders over age 70 should be given waivers to continue serving.
From 1978 to 2012, it became more important to church officials to promote men into leadership whose orthodoxy and embrace of traditionalism were beyond question. Many were ascetics. Most were possessed by a severe theology that saw the church under siege in a hostile world.
This emphasis came at enormous expense. It denied the advancement of sounder, more dynamic leaders, willing to move in new directions. As a direct result, mediocre churchmen inspired and presided over a massive exodus of good people from the church, this accompanied by a wave of horrific child sex abuse scandals.
Today, there are 75 million American Catholics.
According to Pew Research, their level of religious practice and attachment has been waning. Pew found there are an additional 22 million Catholics who left the American church. If these former Catholics were a single denomination, it would be the second largest religion in America.
Like Ahaz, a misguided king in the Book of Isaiah, most bishops cried out, "Lord, send me a sign!" This after abundant signs had already been sent, but ignored. Many bishops have blamed anything else but their own failed leadership: pop culture, secularism, feminism, the media, too much education, too little education, Satan, weak belief, television, general moral decline.
Confronted with child sex abuse and predators that required the cunning of a fox to stop, like sheep, the bishops bleated, scattered then ran. Many have yet to stop running.
Pope Francis is not among these. But last week he graciously asked for forgiveness for the scandal. But, without the Greek's "metanoia" - - evident change of heart - - and a reckoning and price paid by the many who led us into this spiritual cul-de-sac, can there really be forgiveness? Changing the retirement age will remove much of this disgraced, desert generation. It will cull the ranks of current cardinals by 63 percent from 119 to 44, and ensure more than half of all bishops would be retired. After this, the way will be cleared for fresh leadership that can flourish, and the many good bishops over age 70 can be kept.
Second, the celibacy requirement for priesthood should be ended. We ought to return to the practices of the Early Church. A rich irony of the Early Church is that the first Christian leaders were not only Jews, but most, were married with children.
During the church's first thousand years of priests, there was no rule barring their service due to marriage. The rule of celibacy arose mainly for human, not divine, reasons. The motivation for keeping priests unmarried came as some bequeathed church land to their sons. The popes wanted to protect church's property. Fortunately, at the Council of Lateran in 1132, men like Bishop Ulric of Italy expressed strong opposition to mandatory celibacy as unjust.
Since 1970, a priest shortage has bedeviled the church. The number of priests has declined, with the average age now well above 55 and rising, while during this same period, the total number of Catholics doubled to 1.2 billion people. We now have nearly 50,000 parishes worldwide without a resident priest.
A papal commission should be established, composed of lay Catholics and clergy, to end celibacy. The ideal co-chairs for this undertaking could be the accomplished Archbishop of Boston, Sean O'Malley; and the committed Catholic, wife, mother, canon lawyer, and former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese.
Ending celibacy will enlarge the pool from which qualified individuals can be drawn; it will ensure there are enough priests to minister to people and promote faith.
Last, local parish leadership needs to shift away from being built around an all-powerful pastor to one where a council of elected lay women and men act as a board partnered over a pastor. This would be a healthy progression and help develop a cadre of lay leaders able to fill the impending void created by a shortage of priests.
Such a reform would place more power in the hands of the people instead of one person. It would highlight that God frequently provides valuable insight, wisdom and revelation to ordinary people, not just to the ordained.
Recall, Jesus appeared, first and for the poor and ordinary, not the high and mighty.
These Franciscan reforms could go a long way toward the redemption of the church. They may allow her to regain a role in the Public Square, doggedly pursuing the repair of a broken, yet wonderful world that remains, well worth fighting for.
Paul V. Kane, a former fellow of Harvard's Kennedy School and Marine veteran of Iraq, is president of the parish council for the largest Catholic parish in the District of Columbia.