All hands on deck: Franciscan idea can expand church leadership pool

IMAGE: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — For St. Francis of Assisi, following
Christ meant imitating his humility and forsaking riches, power and status; the
men who call themselves Franciscans today believe they are called to embrace the
same attitudes, including in their governance.

In early April, the ministers general of four men’s branches
of the Franciscan family — the Friars Minor, Capuchins, Conventual Franciscans
and the Third Order Regulars — asked Pope Francis to give the Franciscans the “privilege”
of allowing religious brothers to be elected to leadership positions, including
those with authority over ordained priests.

The word “privilege” means special permission for
something not generally envisioned by church law. In canon law, governance in
the church usually is tied to ordination.

The Franciscans’ request is about recovering the notion of fraternity and
service St. Francis gave his first companions, said Father Michael Perry,
minister general of the Friars Minor. But it also has implications for
leadership, authority and governance in the wider church.

At its root, it raises the question: “Is leadership
about organizing things in such a way that one has absolute control over
everything? Or is leadership about empowering people so that there’s a synergy,
a bringing together of all the strengths within a community?” Father Perry
told Catholic News Service.

The core identity of ordained ministry is involved as well.

Because of its unique connection to the Eucharist, the
ministerial priesthood has a special and irreplaceable role within the Catholic
Church and within a Catholic religious community, Father Perry said. The
Franciscans’ request “is not a question of challenging spiritual authority
or the role of the shepherd; it’s actually about liberating the shepherd so
that he can be focused on the sheep and not have to be worried about the gates
and the fences.”

The Franciscan ideal for leadership is that it should invite
and challenge the friars —
brothers among themselves, whether ordained or not — “to ‘minority,’
to not going up, but going down,” Father Perry said. Minority is the
opposite of clericalism, which is “a drive upwards as if upward mobility
offered something, some security and guarantee of fidelity, a way of
controlling people so they remain faithful to the truth. Franciscans, we don’t
see it this way.”

From 1208 to 1209
when Pope Innocent III
approved St. Francis’ initial rule for his order and up until 1239, Father
Perry said, the Franciscans were allowed to elect brothers to leadership roles,
including as minister general, and they did so.

Faggioli, a church historian and professor of theology at Villanova University, said that if
Pope Francis grants the friars’ request, “it would signal to the whole church
a shift in the sense of a de-clericalization of the religious orders and the
return to the original inspiration of the founders: Francis was not a priest
but a lay person, and
the clericalization of the Franciscans came later.”

Some people have argued that St. Francis was a deacon, but
Father Perry said even that is hotly debated among Franciscan scholars. What is
certain is that he received the “tonsure,” a ritual cutting of hair
that often signified preparation for ordination. But Father Perry is convinced that
in St. Francis’ case, it was simply the official sign that he had been granted
permission by the bishop to preach in churches.

Loosening the link between ordination and governance
increases the possibilities for recognizing the dignity, gifts, skills and call
to service of all the baptized, Father Perry said.

Reserving most leadership roles to the ordained, he said,
“has not permitted space for women and also, at times, squelched
competence. It has not promoted competence and, in fact, has awarded

A model of church leadership in which the ordained are
spiritual shepherds, who also have oversight to ensure administrative and
financial matters are handled appropriately, is “a different model than
one in which leadership controls, that has to make sure ‘I’m in charge.’ That
comes from personal insecurity and a lack of faith, not from the presence of
faith,” Father Perry said.

In his view, he said, “clericalism is a sign of a lack
of faith, a lack of trust — a lack of trust in God, a lack of trust in others
and, ultimately, a lack of trust in oneself.”

Faggioli, the church historian, told CNS that “the clergy-centered
church was part of the tight relationship between church and state in the Western
world of established Christendom. It was more a social and political necessity
than a theological one: the state or the political authority needed to count on
a reliable professional class of clergy faithful to the political authority.”

But the world has changed, he said, and “the church’s
mission in this secularized world needs all the hands, not only the clerical

While “governance is still canonically tied to
ordination,” the professor said, “in the real life of the Catholic
Church worldwide today many key decisions are made by laypeople: Catholic education, health care,
media, social work, etc. are largely in the hands of laypeople.”

“We have to come to terms with what is the nature of
church and what is the nature of ministries in the church?” Father Perry
said. “Francis of Assisi called for a new model, a model that would not
challenge at all the nature of the church and the distinct roles within the church,
but would remind the church that these are all in service to something higher,
something greater.”

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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