To serve, not to be served: the Curia called to help the bishops, the episcopal conferences

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia emphasizes work in the Vatican as a service not only to the pope, but also to dioceses, eparchies, bishops and episcopal conferences around the world.

“The Roman Curia is not placed between the pope and the bishops, but is at the service of both,” the pope wrote in “Praedicate Evangelium” (Preach the Gospel), his apostolic constitution reforming the Curia.


The work of the Curia, he said, is “organically linked to the College of Bishops and individual bishops, as well as to the episcopal conferences and their regional and continental groupings, and to the hierarchical structures of the Eastern Churches. All of this is of great pastoral use as an expression of the affective and effective communion that exists between the bishops.

The practical impact of the pope’s words became evident in early September when he announced that he had given the Latin American council of bishops greater responsibility for a papal fund previously controlled by the curia and when the dicastery for the promotion of Integral Human Development announced a radical restructuring of its office.

National and regional bishops’ conferences flourished after the Second Vatican Council, but their stature and influence – at least in the eyes of senior Vatican officials – began to dwindle in the late 1990s, when Saint John Paul II and his closest aides attempted to rein in their perceived power over the authority and ministry of a local bishop for his diocese.

In 1998, Saint John Paul published an apostolic letter, “Apostolos Suos”, on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences. Telling conferences that they could issue statements on doctrinal and moral issues only if they were unanimously approved by conference members, the letter was seen by many observers as a warning against conferences. which were becoming too important and seemed to usurp the authority of individual bishops.

But from the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis gave greater visibility to the episcopal conferences and their teaching authority.

Papal encyclicals and apostolic exhortations repeatedly quote passages from the Bible, the teaching of previous popes, and ecumenical councils like Vatican II. Pope Benedict’s main documents also included early church theologians, ancient philosophers, and contemporary thinkers, but not a statement from a national episcopal conference.

But Pope Francis, in his 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” cited statements from six episcopal conferences: the United States, France, Brazil, the Philippines, Congo and India. . He also drew heavily on the work of the Latin American council of bishops, known as CELAM, in particular its Aparecida document, which – as Archbishop of Buenos Aires – he was responsible for drafting.

The citations were a concrete sign of the collaboration that he says is essential to his ministry as pope.

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that “Bishops’ conferences are able to ‘contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit,’” Pope Francis wrote in this 2013 document. “Yet this desire has not been fully realized, for a legal status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including true doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently worked out.”

His 2015 document, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” gave papal status to the teaching of more than a dozen episcopal conferences on the ethical and moral importance of environmental protection. .

But also, in the name of “sound decentralization,” he made changes to the Code of Canon Law and standard Vatican procedures to grant greater authority to individual bishops, episcopal conferences, and synods of bishops of the Catholic Churches. oriental in the approval of liturgical acts. translations, creation of interdiocesan seminaries, drafting of training programs for priests and publication of national catechisms.

Pope Francis’ document reforming the curia said that with the church embracing “a multitude of peoples, languages ​​and cultures”, it has “an immense stock of successful experiences in evangelization”. One of the roles of the Curia, he said, is to gather wisdom, experiences and best practices from individual dioceses, episcopal conferences or Eastern synods of bishops and share them with others.

Announcing its new structure Sept. 14, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development said, “Our mandate is to help and support the Holy Father and bishops around the world; here we mean regional and national episcopal conferences and hierarchical structures of the Eastern Churches, individual bishops and patriarchs, offices dealing with issues of integral human development.

Adapting the “see, judge, act” approach common to the application of Catholic social teaching, the dicastery indicated that it is now organized into three sections: “listening and dialogue”, which will promote bilateral contact with bishops and Catholic groups engaged in work for justice and peace; “research and reflection”, which will study questions and concerns raised by bishops, episcopal conferences and groups; and “communication and restitution”, which will share research results with them and beyond.

The dicastery, led by Cardinal Michael Czerny, said its agenda would be shaped “by the challenges that local churches bring to our attention,” challenges that can and will change over time.

In another small change, the Vatican announced Sept. 16 that Pope Francis had “terminated” the Populorum Progressio Foundation for Latin America and the Caribbean, which had its administrative headquarters in the Dicastery and its operational base in Bogota, Colombia. . Founded by Saint John Paul II in 1992 to help the region’s small farmers, indigenous and African-American communities, the foundation will be replaced by the Populorum Progressio Fund, and CELAM, the council of bishops of Latin America, will study grant applications and monitor projects.

“It is necessary to promote a stronger bond with the local churches”, which know better the members of these communities and their needs, the pope said.

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