A demonstrator wears a mask with a message during a protest of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis, in downtown Los Angeles, on May 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Want to make systemic change? Pope Francis has some ideas.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — When Pope Francis was elected pope, the Vatican was in trouble.

The Roman Catholic Church’s mishandling of sexual abuse and a series of financial scandals had challenged the credibility of the institution and emptied its pews.

For Francis, the root of the church’s problems was clericalism: the belief that religious people belong to a superior caste, insulated by favoritisms, which has helped promote an air of moral superiority among clergy.

“Clericalism is our ugliest pervasion,” the pope told seminarians last year. “The Lord wants you to be shepherds; shepherds of the people, not clerics of the state.”

The mentality behind clericalism, according to Francis, has helped spread corruption within the Catholic Church. Victims of sexual abuse were not taken seriously, and predator priests were moved instead of removed in order to save face. The belief that only those who are ordained have authority has helped marginalize laypeople in the Catholic Church, especially women.

Like activists in the United States and around the world trying to break the stronghold of systemic racism, the pope was faced with a malady that has its roots in centuries-old traditions and practices and structural sin. 

To change it — or at least to start making a change — the pope needed a combination of big gestures and long-term strategy, to ensure that the changes he makes today resonate in the future.

According to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the head of the Vatican think tank for matters promoting life, Pope Francis has tried to implement a “revolution of fraternity.”

“This ‘fraternity’ starts with paying attention to the excluded, with the care for existential and geographical peripheries,” the archbishop told Religion News Service on Friday (June 12).

The first step involved changing the “style” of the papacy, Paglia said.

A view of St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, and Rome from the top of Michelangelo’s dome in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David Iliff/Creative Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Francis’ decision to live in Domus Sanctae Marthae instead of the traditional papal palaces sent a message of simplicity and humility. The Argentine pope opted for simple clothing, avoiding the colorful flourishes of his predecessors and helping to promote a public image that portrays the church and its clergy as closer to the people.

The pope also tries to use simplified language and communication to make the Catholic message more appealing, according to the archbishop.

Pope Francis “expresses the same gospel in a new language, understandable to the men and women of the 21st century,” said Paglia. 

While using a new language and public image is an important first step for Francis, the biggest challenge lay in changing the culture within the Vatican and its institutions.

That starts with the bureaucracy that makes up the Roman Curia.

In this case, the pope has chosen a “long process” aimed at “changing hearts and minds,” Paglia said.

The 2013 papal document “Evangelii Gaudium” serves as a manifesto for Pope Francis’ reform. It hoped to inspire “a new chapter of evangelization,” rooted in care for the poor and a renewed sense of mission. The document also set out to change the centralization of power and doctrine within the Catholic Church in order to encourage “creativity and openness,” Francis wrote.

“Pope Francis is drawing up a Curia that is ‘at the service’ of local churches,” Paglia said.

Francis’ “green” encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” changed the way the Catholic Church and the Vatican relate to society and the international community. It placed the message of the gospel in defense of the environment and the many migrants created by climate change and pollution, an approach that had already been proposed by previous popes but was brought to the masses by Francis.

Reform, as Francis says, is about “starting processes.” It includes concrete steps as well as theological imagination. 

Francis’ words on creating a church that serves like a “field hospital” will be sterile if they don’t permeate the culture of theologians and canon lawyers. 

Pope Francis speaks during a news conference aboard the papal plane on his flight back from a trip to Thailand and Japan on Nov. 26, 2019. (Remo Casilli/Pool Photo via AP)

Theologians are called to be “men and women of compassion, touched by the oppressed life of many, by the slavery of today, by social wounds, by violence, by wars and from the enormous injustices suffered by so many poor,” Francis told participants in a theology congress in the southern Italian town of Naples in June 2019.

Getting theologians and canon lawyers to buy into reform won’t be easy. At the Vatican, there are rivalries between theologians and canonists at different pontifical universities that could jeopardize “any attempt at reform,” said canon lawyer Claudia Giampietro.

“The changes proposed by the pontiff will have a future only if it inspires a process of reflection within the People of God, even among those who are dedicated to the study of ecclesial discipline,” she told RNS in an email on Saturday.

Francis has also sought ways to foster conversation between church leadership and laypeople, often through the use of synods, where bishops from all over the world gather to address specific topics.

He overhauled the summit of bishops to promote a multitude of points of view, which allowed for conversations about priestly celibacy, homosexuality and distributing Communion to the divorced and remarried.

Those topics had been off-limits in the past. 

“I was the relator general (chief secretary) of the 2001 synod and there was a cardinal who told us what should be discussed and what should not,” Pope Francis told the Argentine newspaper La Nación in 2014. “That will not happen now.”

Among Francis’ biggest changes is the complete makeover of the cardinals.

 To date, Francis has appointed 66 out of the 124 cardinals who will elect the next pontiff, which will likely cement his legacy into the future. Those new cardinals have come from a wide range of cultures, backgrounds and religious congregation.

“We need a new vision for the world,” Paglia said. “We have seen it in these months of pandemic. We need hope. And hope runs on two inseparable rails. The first is to care for one another without discarding anyone, aware that people are a part of a single family. The second is to find a new relationship between humanity and creation.”