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September 21st, 2013
11:41 AM ET

Can Pope Francis make his vision a reality?

By John L. Allen Jr., CNN

ROME (CNN) - Pope Francis has sketched a vision of a Catholic Church that’s more welcoming – to women, to homosexuals, to divorced and remarried believers, to pretty much everybody –- and less invested in the culture wars.

In a now famous interview published Thursday, the pope said he knows some militants want him to toss around more fire and brimstone. But he insists that Catholic positions on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage are already well known, and anyway, “Ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

None of that implies a change in church teaching, but it does suggest a fairly serious shift in tone. The question now becomes, is this just the pope talking? Or is he capable of bringing the rest of the church along with him?

Despite the mythology of Roman Catholicism as a top-down monolith, the truth is that it’s actually one of the most decentralized institutions on Earth.

There are only about 3,000 personnel in the Vatican directing the affairs of a church that counts 1.2 billion members, which means that Rome doesn’t have the manpower to micromanage anything but exceptional cases.

Probably 90% of the decisions that matter – what pastor will be assigned to which parish, or what tithes will be used for –- are made at the local level.

Popes trying to steer this colossus in a new direction, therefore, need middle managers as well as the rank and file to pull in the same direction, and experience suggests they don’t always fall in line.

MORE ON CNN: Pope Francis: Church can't 'interfere' with gays

Pope John Paul II, nearly 27 years, exhorted the church to be more evangelical, more daring about taking its message to the streets, and while he unleashed powerful new energies – think about World Youth Days, for instance – that missionary aspiration still remains a work in progress.

Similarly, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI desired a church more appreciative of tradition and more focused on its core identity, and again most observers would say the end result over eight difficult years was a mixed bag.

If Francis is to bring the Catholic Church into line with his more pastoral and compassionate vision, two fronts seem especially critical.

First is personnel. Nothing a pope does to shape culture in the church is more important than naming the roughly 5,100 bishops of the world, who set the tone in their own backyards.

A new papal direction may be invigorating, but if people don’t pick up the same vibe from their local bishops and pastors, over time it will only seem like sound and fury signifying little.

To date Francis hasn’t made many flagship picks except for his own successor in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but he’ll have to do so soon, since archbishops in critical locales such as Madrid, Cologne and Chicago are all older than 75, the normal retirement age.

Popes typically rely on their nuncios, or ambassadors, around the world to recommend new bishops.

In June, Francis gave his nuncios their marching orders, saying he wants bishops who are “close to the people, fathers and brothers” as well as “gentle, patient and merciful.” He also said they shouldn’t have “the psychology of princes.”

How well he spots talent to fit that profile will help determine whether his dream of moving past what he called “a church of small-minded rules” becomes reality.

MORE ON CNN: The pope said what? Six stunners from Francis

The other key test is structural reform, beginning in the Vatican and radiating outward, perhaps especially on financial transparency and the fight against child sexual abuse.

Scandals in those areas have plagued the Vatican and the wider church in recent years, making it difficult for many people to see Catholicism as a vehicle for compassion.

Francis has set up three commissions to ponder reform, including a body of eight cardinals from around the world set to hold its first meeting in Rome from October 1-3.

If those groups don’t deliver significant recommendations, which are embraced and implemented by the pope, once again his rhetoric about reforming the church may ring hollow.

Popes play many roles, including prophet and CEO. Francis has delivered a stunning debut as the church’s voice of conscience and spiritual guide; now he has to get down to the brass tacks of management to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.

John L. Allen Jr. is CNN’s senior Vatican analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Catholic Church • Leaders • Pope Francis

soundoff (2,596 Responses)
  1. Macy

    Well my, the atheists have run out of steam it looks like. Maybe they are reading the Bible and changing their lives?

    September 21, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
    • Prayer Is Why Macy Has Gas

      Prayer makes you flatulent.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. See his website http://santorum.com
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your back.
      Praying is a stupid and useless thing to do.

      September 21, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
      • Macy

        This icky one isn't I see. lol

        September 21, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • Isaac Asimov

      Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:33 am |
    • Dan

      Religion is unhealthy for little boys' butts.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  2. Bag Boy

    Cover your feet. Polish your shoes.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  3. Prayer Makes You Pass Gas

    Prayer makes you flatulent.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. See http://santorum.com for details.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your back.
    Praying is a stupid and useless thing to do.

    September 21, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Disinfect your mouth. Cover your teeth.

      September 21, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  4. Bag Boy

    Rinse your mouth. Polish your breath.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  5. Macy

    I notice the Christians don't raise their voices much in here. Preach! Atheists love God, they just need to pray.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Prayer Makes You Pass Gas

      Prayer makes you flatulent.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your back.
      Praying is a stupid and useless thing to do.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
      • Macy

        You are cute lol. fart jokes, always original. When you are ready to grow up, Jesus is waiting for you.

        September 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
        • Bob

          Funny that no one can actually produce modern evidence of Jesus. Why do you think that is, Macy?

          And furthermore, how is it that your omnipotent being couldn't do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus' death a "sacrifice", when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic "god" that you've made for yourself there.

          Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
          Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
          http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

          September 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm |
    • Dan

      How can you love something that doesn't exist?

      September 22, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  6. Bag Boy

    Polish your breath. Cover your teeth.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
  7. Lionly Lamb

    It is the CBD and THC potency and type of distillation alcohol based solvents used which should be well regulated and peer guided in order for the desired effect of Cannabis and/or Hemp oil to be so described and prescribed by the budding pharmacologists now becoming an addition to the sales revenue of todays’ blooming cannabinoid pharmacological industries...

    September 21, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Cover you breath. Polish your teeth.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
  8. Bag Boy

    Remember your breath. Polish your teeth.

    September 21, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
  9. Lionly Lamb

    Current day scientific research by burgeoning well regulated research institutes of the Cannabis Phenomenon may well be found leaning toward becoming a very lucrative black market issue if the prices involved are found worthy... It is within the types of liquid alcohol solvents one uses to distill the CBD compound down into a gel form that needs to be well regulated under the strictest of guidelines in order to keep the clientele safe from the quite harmful chemically based CBD solvent oils that might arise from some black marketers pushing off knock offs as being the Real and Regulated Oils…

    September 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Cover your mouth. Remember your breath.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  10. Macy

    Hey atheists, you can't ask God into your heart if you don't even believe in God. Get a clue!

    September 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • tony

      from which sect?

      September 21, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
    • Macy

      You know, all those atheist sects that keep being mean and not listening to good Christians.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:29 pm |
      • DanWan

        good Christian is an oxymoron.

        September 21, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
        • Macy

          You are just silly DanWan, Christians love the world and are here to help.

          September 21, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
        • Gary

          Like they helped by burning those "witches" at the stake. No thanks, Macy. You can take your Christian "help" and shove it where the sun don't shine, along with the rest of your evil religion.

          September 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
        • Macy

          Gosh Gary, you are misinformed. Christians have kriss-crossed the world converting heathens into God fearing Christians. They will go to heaven. You won't I am afraid...:(

          September 21, 2013 at 8:57 pm |
        • Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

          Yes, converting people into Christians. Just as the Europeans did when the came to the new world, except that that "conversion" was actually "murder." The Europeans brought slavery to the "heathens." That's not very loving.

          September 22, 2013 at 7:27 am |
    • Dan

      The imaginary man is in your small, brain-washed head.

      September 22, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  11. Native Americans

    😦

    September 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • Invasive Americans

      🙂

      September 21, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
    • Polar Bears

      😦

      September 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
      • Permafrost

        😦

        September 21, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
        • Deadly Ancient Organisms

          🙂

          September 21, 2013 at 8:44 pm |
        • Cabbage Ass

          😦

          September 21, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
        • Ball Polish Sting

          😦 🙂

          September 21, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  12. Macy

    Atheists are NOT very good Christians and need to walk with Jesus! I pray for them!

    September 21, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      I would say that is a failure of Jesus'....one of many.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
      • Macy

        Yes, and it seems that atheists don't even pray. I mean, really? Wow.

        September 21, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
        • G to the T

          You seem to have an odd conception of atheism Macy. Why would I pray to a being I no longer believes exists? Note "no longer". I used to be a believer, felt Jesus in my heart with all my being (or so I thought).

          Not to assume but I would recommend you read some books about the bible and it's history not written by christians. You'd be suprised what you learn about the book, it's (supposed) authors and how it's evolved in a very, very human way over time.

          September 27, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • tony

      Prayinhg beats getting off your backside and actually doing somethoing.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:26 pm |
      • Robert Brown

        An example of typing without prayer.

        September 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
      • Macy

        tony, honey, get up and do God's word, even if you are an atheist pray to the Lord because you love him.

        September 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
        • G to the T

          Honestly Macy – you think about these things before you post them. It would be like asking someone to pray to an imaginary friend. If don't believe, any type of prayer wouldn't be sincere!

          September 27, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Bob

      Macy, how is it that your omnipotent being couldn't do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus' death a "sacrifice", when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic "god" that you've made for yourself there.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      September 21, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
      • Macy

        Bob, I don't know if you are joking or whatever but God is watching us right now and is not pleased with Bob I can tell you that.

        September 21, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
        • Bob

          Macy, grow some guts and try to answer the question directly, you pathetic coward.

          September 21, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
      • Maggie

        Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.

        You are my friends if you do what I command.

        I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

        You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.

        This is my command: Love each other.

        September 22, 2013 at 10:58 am |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          That would be fine and good except for god doesn't love his enemies; he tortures them forever in a pit of neverending fire.

          September 22, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Dan

      As if praying will do anything. Stop wasting your time with that nonsense. Do you actually believe in talking snakes, an invisible guy in the sky that created the universe a few thousand years, people rising from the dead, etc? Are you insane or just 6 years old?

      September 22, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  13. Lionly Lamb

    What would the Pope have to say about allowing all the world's farmers to grow as much Hemp (not Cannabis) as is feasibly possible and use the seeds as a stable food source within socially stricken countries..? If you’re not on par on being Hemp wise, Hemp is an offshoot of the Cannabis Family Tree… Hemp contains hardly any THC, the psychoactive ingredient to give one a buzz… The additional nutrients coming from Hemp seeds could feed so many of the under nourished with a nutritiously staple food source supplement without the emotional high...

    September 21, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Polish your teeth.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  14. Lionly Lamb

    Watch out… Snake oil Hemp oil salesmen may use unorthodox reductionist methods to change CBD ladled Hemp Buds into oils and solvents that could be as unbeneficial oils and possibly harmful to the human condition…

    Current day scientific research into the well regulated research institutes ongoing researches of the Cannabis Phenomenon may be found very lucrative black marketing issue... It is the types of liquid alcohol one uses to distill the CBD compound down into a gel form…

    It is the CBD and THC potency and type of distillation alcohol used which should be well regulated and peer guided in order for the desired effect of Cannabis and/or Hemp oil to be so described and prescribed by the budding pharmacologists now becoming an addition to the sales revenue of todays’ blooming pharmacological industries…

    September 21, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • Bag Boy

      Cover your breath.

      September 21, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  15. doobzz

    I hope justice for the thousands of children who have been raped and abused by clergy is in his vision too.

    September 21, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      That will hopefully be his next step. 🙂

      September 21, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
    • Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

      An admission to that would open them up to all kinds of legal action – it'll never happen, but they'll continue to address it internally, secretively. I think if it was up to him he would come out and easily admit it.

      September 22, 2013 at 7:31 am |
  16. The Answer Is No

    .

    September 21, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • But why

      ?

      September 21, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
  17. Reality

    The last paragraph of the topic:

    "Popes play many roles, including prophet and CEO. Francis has delivered a stunning debut as the church’s voice of conscience and spiritual guide; now he has to get down to the brass tacks of management to make sure it doesn’t go to waste."

    Popes as prophets? Give us a break ! More like a brainwashed fortune teller !

    Popes as CEOs? Give us a break ! The only money he should be involved with is the refunding of all the money to the former and current members of the RCC for the con that has been pulled on them for the last 2000 years.

    September 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  18. bostontola

    I guess this pope blitz is better than Rick Warren coverage.

    September 21, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  19. Bootyfunk

    is this a joke? women are not allowed to be leaders. g.ays are not even allowed to be g.ay, let alone leaders. the church is still SUPER prejudice, but slightly less than yesterday - and they get credit for that? what a joke.

    September 21, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  20. Mr Rogera

    Any thing is possible in the land of make-believe.

    September 21, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.