Humbly support local churches
With the church at a crossroads, Catholics look to Pope Francis for guidance. Bishop Kevin Dowling advises the pope to restore power to the people.
What should always be central in the life of the people of God—the church—is the experience that we are a pilgrim people. What that means is that we are a community of fallible disciples called by Jesus to continually incarnate his presence and transforming mission in the real world at any given time. This awareness invites the leaders of such a community to humble, listening, and discerning service so that the whole church community can be empowered by the Spirit to make the mission of Jesus meaningful and life-giving in very different contexts.
On the one hand, we have billions living in abject misery in the midst of huge wealth accumulated by the powerful. This calls for prophetic leadership, solidarity, and engagement by the worldwide church to gradually transform with others the systemic injustices which crush the “least of these.”
On the other hand—in the developed world in particular, but not only there—we have many thinking and well-formed Catholics who seek a leadership that promotes their sense of belonging to a life-giving, relevant church. Church leadership today, therefore, needs to empower the gifts and talents of the whole people of God so that the church’s mission and ministry may respond to the struggles and hopes of people in every context.
This objective will be hampered if the church is perceived to be based on a system of power and control from the hierarchical center in Rome. The Catholic social teaching principle of subsidiarity is an important prerequisite if the church is to be a vibrant and transforming presence in very challenging and different socio-cultural situations on all continents.
It should be clear today that such complexity and diversity in church experience cannot be managed nor given life by curial departments in Rome. The curia needs to humbly support and not micromanage the local churches. It needs to recognize that if the church is to fulfill its calling and mission in the world, it will precisely require empowered leadership and pastoral responses discerned at the local level.
My hope for Pope Francis is that he will renew the vision of collegiality as received from the Second Vatican Council: that leadership in the church be exercised and experienced by all as a humble servant leadership by the pope in union with the bishops of the world. And bishops themselves should mirror the same style of leadership as they promote coresponsibility and collaborative ministry with all the faithful—for people and the planet.
This essay is part of a collection of experts’ advice to the new pope. To read more on how Pope Francis might address some of the pressing issues in today’s church, click here .
This article appeared in the May 2013  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 5, page 22).
Image: Photo courtesy of Tara Dix