Will Pope Francis Pull It Off?


This Monday, March 13, is the fourth anniversary of the day Pope Francis was elected and appeared on the loggia in 2013. After four years of surprise and shakeup, many wonder if church reform will develop and take root. In that spirit, Pray Tell visited with Fr. Rocco D’Ambrosiosocial scientist from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, about his forthcoming Liturgical Press book, “Will Pope Francis Pull It Off? The Challenge of Church Reform.”


PTB: Let’s get right to the point: Will Francis pull it off? What are the odds, in your view, that he will succeed in reforming the Church?

Pull it offRDA: It is very difficult to speak of probability in a complex reality like the Catholic Church. (I speak obviously from the human point of view, knowing that the Spirit acts outside all our expectations!) Therefore the possible outcomes are many and making forecasts almost impossible. I believe, however, that some of the processes of reform that Pope Francis has initiated are now irreversible and so I think that in some ways he is already succeeding.

PTB: You write that reform is endangered by some of Francis’s strongest supporters who mythologize him and have excessive expectations of him. Why is this a danger?

RDA: Francis says this, too, in an interview (that I cite in the book): any kind of mythologization of a person, especially of a leader, hurts everyone. We must pay more attention to the themes of this reform than to the person who initiated it. This person, like every person, is a gift of God, with a history of strengths and weaknesses, of grace and sin. If God chose him to be pope, with all that he brings with him, as he does with each pope, the Lord wants him to lead his Church down a new path, that is, renewal in the spirit of Vatican II.

PTB: Your final chapter focuses on the poor, what you call a “perspective from below.” Why this focus? Is this the starting point for everything else – collegiality, the reform of the Curia, and so forth?

RDA: The reform from below is a perspective of understanding, observation, of action, and of reform. It is a very important and essential foundation from which to be able to realize the rest, that is, to actualize the other points of reform (collegiality, the Curia, Vatican power, and so on). In sum: one who sees from this perspective from below understands what and who is closest to the Lord’s heart (Matthew 25), and only from this perspective can the other aspects of reform be accomplished. For example, one cannot evangelically reform the structure of power and cleanse it of its sin if one forgets the poor and the charity and justice that is owed them. The king in Israel was just only if his first concern was for the least ones.

PTB: You emphasize that Francis has picked up where we left off, with the vision of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope Paul VI, e.g. in his Ecclesiam suam and Evangelii nuntiandi. Is this an implicit criticism of the intervening popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI? Was Vatican II stalled out in some sense?

RDA: Every Council has had long periods, after they have concluded, before being fully implemented. One thinks of the Council of Trent, which began to take hold only after fifty or sixty years. Yves Congar said that for Vatican II, fifty years would have to pass before its goals were fully realized. Pope Francis, in an interview, spoke of one hundred years. In any case, it takes time, much time. Benedict XVI too has written that the Church is slow in its processes.

PTB: Writing as a social scientist, you note that institutions by nature are resistant to change. Is the Catholic Church particularly prone to resistance, given the people promoted to high office in the last several decades? How strong is the Catholic resistance to change?

RDA: I don’t think the Catholic Church, humanly speaking, is any different than other institutions when it comes to resisting change. It is different in another way. Let me explain. We have seen an attempt to justify resistance to reform and innovation by suggesting it is a change in doctrine. Francis’s reform is not of the Church’s doctrine but of its pastoral practice. Some, being against the reform, unfairly accuse the Pope of changing doctrine. Too comfortable and too inconsistent, they should be more honest and simply say they reject the reform and confess the reason for this rejection.

PTB: And what would be their real reason for rejecting it?

RDA: I think it is the classic one: they don’t want to admit their errors or call into question their ways of understanding and using power in the Church and in the world. And so their references to doctrine serve to distract attention from the principle focus, as do their attacks on the pope himself, personalizing the conflict. All in the name of avoiding the evangelical reform of the Church. Too comfortable!

PTB: How do the media and blogosphere get Pope Francis right, and how do they get him wrong?

RDA: I am a journalist, too, and I have great respect for the work that they do. As with all professions, there are good journalists and bad ones. The problem with regard to the Pope is, rather, a bit more specific. The media do not always seem to synthesize the Pope’s words and gestures well, because of their novelty, richness, and versatility. In the Catholic community, it is sometimes necessary to take the Pope’s words and understand them in context, in order to understand better the content of the reform. We should not rely solely on the (necessary) syntheses provided by the media.

PTB: Francis’s first four years have been marked by strong (sometimes shocking) words and gestures. There have been some institutional reforms, but the focus has not been on structures. No commission to re-draft the Code of Canon Law, for example. What does Francis need to do to institutionalize his vision? Are you hopeful that he will begin to do this in coming years?

RDA: This is a very difficult question. I honestly don’t think I can offer an answer without neglecting some important point. Moreover, I know well that it is one thing to analyze the use of power and entirely another to exercise power oneself. It is easy to have the comfortable role of observer, seeking to conceptualize, and another thing to bear the responsibility of making difficult decisions. I will try to give an answer that is incomplete and open to discussion. These first four years seem to have been the period in which words and gestures of the Pope have indicated the cornerstones of the reform. Now – it is true – these processes must be institutionalized.

PTB: And whose job is it to do this?

RDA: I ask myself: is it only the Pope’s? Or is it rather the responsibility of his collaborators? And of the local churches, in all their components? And if some of these oppose the reform (and refuse to help facilitate the process of institutionalizing it), why don’t they resign? Or perhaps the Pope should invite them to resign? At this point, an external observer can only ask questions, not provide certain answers or solutions. The solutions are always the responsibility of the individual. The Pope is offering us a great example of what it means for power to be exercised with interior freedom, with an evangelical and conciliar vision, with love for the Church and the world, especially the least ones. Various cardinals, bishops, priests, religious, and laity, near and far from Rome, are doing everything they can to derail this project. It is best to assume they are trying to act responsibly, out of love for and obedience to the Church, as they so often emphasize, rather than trying to sow strife and slander. Despite all of this, we are living in a beautiful ecclesial period, a gift of God, that must not be wasted, but that must be understood and made to bear fruit.

Fr. Rocco D’Ambrosio is a lecturer in political philosophy and political ethics at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is director of Cercasi un Fine (Seeking a Goal”), an Italian organization for people of various religions and cultures united in seeking a more just, peaceful, and beautiful society. D’Ambrosio received his doctorate in social sciences from the Gregorian in 1995. He is the author of many books (published in Italian) on political science, institutional culture, and Catholic social teaching. This is his first book to be published in English.



DAmbrosioRocco D’Ambrosio is director of Cercasi un Fine (Seeking a Goal”), an Italian organization for people of various religions and cultures united in seeking a more just, peaceful, and beautiful society. D’Ambrosio received his doctorate in social sciences from the Gregorian in 1995. He is the author of many books (published in Italian) on political science, institutional culture, and Catholic social teaching. This is his first book to be published in English.

Pray Tell thanks Barry Hudock for the translation of this interview into English. Hudock is also the translator of D’Ambrosio’s forthcoming book.



  1. I look forward to reading this book! What cannot be overstated is that Francis emerged from a Latin American Church which the traditionalists see as synonymous with Marxism, namely because of its Liberation Theology – whose roots lay in the post World War II response of those who had suffered in the Concentration Camps. This tension has been re-ignited by Francis’ efforts toward the canonization of Oscar Romero, who, forsaking Roman ‘loyalties’, could no longer embrace the theology of ‘you are poor because God want you poor’, and instead embraced the preferential option of championing the oppressed and repressed of El Salvador.

    More profoundly, Francis emerged from a Church which daily confronted the inequalities endemic to a country ruthlessly colonized by multi-national European corporations, which had created new levels of poverty and repression. His spiritual journey led him deeper into the roots of poverty and the hopes expressed by Jesus in the Gospels. His fellow Churchmen had long espoused the biblical mandate, which led to the central belief of liberation theology, that the God of the Bible is a liberating God, who intervenes in human history to break down structures of injustice. This puts Francis at loggerheads with the diehards, but he is relentless in his defense of the dignity of the poor and how intimately Salvation History is bonded with our becoming one with them, to raise our levels of awareness (‘conscientization’) and to elevate our own dignity by bonding with them in their struggles to do likewise.

    As a liturgist, I am a slightly disappointed that Liturgy is not Francis’ forte, because I believe Liturgy is the primary catalyst in our becoming one with the struggles of all people in self-determination, and for provoking global harmony and equality. But Francis’ words and attitudes are the inspiration we have all been offered as we each accomplish our varied ministries.

    Reform has already begun, and we carry the burden of its continuation. Thank you, Pope Francis!

  2. I’d like to second the opinion of Tony Barr as I thank Dr. D’Ambrosio for his balanced and nuanced evaluation of Pope Francis as a Reforming Pope. As a student of Church History I have observed that there is both an upper and a lower aspect to our Church’s life through history, as there is a theology from above and a theology from below in our gospel narratives. Vatican II effectively altered our perspective of church when it organized its dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium to place the People of God at the head of the document and the Bishops at the end.

    Like leaven in the loaf, this perspective will penetrate the whole mass in time if we persevere with or without a similar successor to the present pope. I rejoice that I have lived to see this day!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *