Francis’ “New Wineskins” hermeneutic: “Don’t be afraid of the renewal of structures!”

Pope Francis (or is it “Francis, Bishop of Rome”?) on the renewal of church structures at Mass last Saturday:

“In the Christian life, even in the life of the Church, there are old structures, passing structures: it is necessary to renew them! And the Church has always been attentive to this, with dialogue with cultures . . . It always allows itself to be renewed according to places, times, and persons. The Church has always done this! From the very first moment, we remember the first theological battle: was it necessary to carry out all of the Jewish practices in order to be Christian? No! They said no! The gentiles could enter as they are: gentiles . . . Entering into the Church and receiving Baptism. A first renewal of the structures. . . . And so the Church always goes forward, giving space to the Holy Spirit that renews these structures, structures of the churches. Don’t be afraid of that! Don’t be afraid of the newness of the Gospel! Don’t be afraid of the newness that the Holy Spirit works in us! Don’t be afraid of the renewal of structures!” reports further:

The Church, he [Francis] said, “is free: the Holy Spirit carries her forward.” The Gospel teaches this: “the liberty to always find the newness of the Gospel in us, in our life, and even in our structures.” The Pope then re-iterated the importance of the “freedom to choose new wineskins for this newness.”

Der Speigel (via ABC) reports that Francis is “circumventing the old guard wherever he can. The establishment is up in arms.” Time reports that he is “shaking things up.” E.J. Dionne at WaPo sees Francis as a “genuinely holy man, a brilliant politician” in his decision to canonize J23 as well as JP2; he has “pointed the way for a more open, less divided church that examines the present and looks to the future with hope, not fear.”

Lest we forget, not long ago Benedict XVI, by contrast, was pushing his “reform ourselves, not church structures” thing. In Germany in September 2011 he posed the rhetorical question,

Should the Church not change? Must she  not adapt her offices and structures to the present day?

Only to answer:

Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what in her opinion was the first thing  that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.

Benedict went on to speak powerfully and convincingly about our need for conversion. But his analysis of “worldliness” in the Church seems to mean that too much concern about structures and how to change them is precisely the problem.

It seems clear that Francis stands in broad continuity with Benedict when it comes to the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. But when it comes to structural reform, I think we have a new hermeneutic at work – call it the “New Wine, New Wineskins” hermeneutic. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.




  1. Thanks for this post – IMO, it specifically addresses the 125 comments in the earlier post – Toward the Transformation of Traditionalism and Fr. Ruff’s last comment on that thread.

  2. An interesting biblical text and the great image of the church as a vineyard!

    B16 advocated a hermeneutic of reform; his attempt to articulate that hermeneutic got sidetracked by debates about rupture and continuity, and we remember those but we forgot about reform.

    Francis shows great sociological understanding by grounding the newness of institutions in the newness of persons (i.e. in Christians as new wine). He spent about half his homily talking about the new wine first, i.e. that it is about the whole of one’s life not just going to church on Sunday. We can’t think piecemeal.

    Sociologists have long rejected any reification of institutions as abstract entities, but rather grounded them in standardized behavior dependent upon networks of people, their shared behaviors, and their shared understandings of those behaviors.

    For example, the institution of a parish choir consists of people, their behaviors as a choir and their beliefs and understanding of choral behavior. The people, the behaviors, and the beliefs that compose any institution are always changing, just as personal behaviors and beliefs are always changing.

    When psychologists study individual behavior, they often hold institutions constant; when sociologists study institutional behavior, they often hold persons constant. However as someone trained to think both as a psychologist and a sociologist, I am always aware these ways of thinking are abstract and artificial. Behavior and beliefs are an interaction of people and institutions.

    Francis has a good understanding that the reform of persons, social institutions, and cultures are all intertwined; you cannot have any one without the others. We have to let the Spirit re-form us as persons, institutions, and cultures.

    Rupture occurs when we try to put the new wine of the Spirit into old wineskins (i.e. old institutional structures)!!! The ever same and ever new Spirit demands not only personal (new wine) but also social reform (new wineskins).

  3. The idea that we ourselves have to change implies that the Church will change, as we are the Church. I know that the institution is what it is, but we are it in the end. Not that this is so easy.

    The idea that we (Church) change, one person at a time, but so that all may be One is powerful. and there is a tension set up, a dyanmic is in place, with the us of church and the institution at either end.

  4. Renewed social structures make possible personal changes. Parishes and dioceses are presently structured in a manner that ministers principally to those who show up seeking some kind of service. One belongs to a parish by filling out a registration form. Doing so makes one eligible for parish mailings including contribution envelopes. Once on the rolls, individuals may decide to respond to calls to more active membership defined as being a liturgical minister, a catechist, or a committee member. Once on the parish rolls, the diocese will have access for development fund mailings and to provide the newspaper.
    The parish is set up to provide sacraments and sacramental services to those who are registered. In this setup the pastor may, in fact, have the gift of preaching and use it to issue and reinforce the call to discipleship and holiness. He may also call people to be good stewards of the gifts God has entrusted to them. He may work collegially with others and work with them to fashion and implement a parish mission that focuses on gospel imperatives. But all of that is optional within the present structures. Francis knows that if people are to change, to be drawn to repentance, to holiness, and to Christ’s mission, then it will make a huge difference whether or not the leaders act more like servants than rulers and rule makers. I am praying that the Lord will allow him enough time in office to reach the tipping point in which there can be no turning back. I say this knowing full well that I am being called to repentance, change, and servant leadership. I’m expecting that to be challenging and know full well that part of me will want to maintain the present levels of comfort. Kyrie Eleison.

  5. I remember being taught once that we often mistake the church as a fullly grown oak tree, when in reality at 2000 and some years old, it’s really just a sapling in the history of Earth,

    If the church is a pilgrim vessel, doesnt it make sense it is always moving forward?

  6. @ Feehily#4 Renewed social structures make possible personal changes.

    It is a mistake to think of renewal solely or primarily as consisting of personal changes, or institutional changes, or as a struggle between them!

    Rather Francis is the catalyst for a movement
    that consists of persons and institutions
    interrelating to one another in new ways
    creating a new environment that eventually changes
    both persons and institutions in permanent ways.

    Francis did not change much as a person when he became the Bishop of Rome. In fact one of the real securities in understanding him and accepting him is that much of what he is doing as Bishop of Rome is modeled on what he did as bishop in Argentina. There is great consistency in him as a person, and great consistency in how he has exercised the role of bishop. But he has used both his personal consistency and the consistency of his past role as bishop to create a new environment for the Bishop of Rome.

    Francis has not changed many of the personnel at the Vatican. He has not changed much of the formal structure of the Vatican. But he has changed the entire environment of the Vatican by locating his living quarters at the hotel rather than in the papal apartments, and by making the morning Masses there his primary way of relating to Vatican personnel.

    In creating this new environment in the Vatican he has started a movement outside the existing patterns of relationships by using some of the most fundamental structures of the church, i.e. the priest’s morning Mass, homily, their relationship to the people being served. Would that priests in most parishes were this creative!!! Again this going back to basics, role of bishop and role of priest, and building on his past experiences in these roles, gives people the confidance to absorb change.

    He has created a new environment for the Papacy in the world just by picking up the phone regularly and by meeting with people very easily. He is bypassing all the old channels of communication without formally abolishing them. Again he is not changing people, and not changing the structure formally, but everything is being made new. No one in the Vatican can any longer be sure they are in control of people and information. They can no longer use the people and the structures for their own agenda without fear of the consequence of being found out.

    Of course the wine of the movement that Francis is facilitating will need new wineskins, but new wineskins are not necessary to produce the wine only to save it for the future. Bishops, priests, and laity need to join the new wine movement; don’t wait for the wineskins they will come in due time.

    And yes for us older people. Let us not get drunk on this new wine as some did with that of Vatican II but rather carefuly think about the wineskins for the future.

  7. The Bishop of Rome is taking back his authority and not relying on others, clergy or laity to usurp his authority. Yet the old wine of conciliarism is what is being remade and has implications for diocesan and parish structures where so-called empowerment of paid and volunteer staff be they clergy or laity becomes divisive power grabbing. So is Pope Francis modeling a pre-Vatican II understanding of clerical authority in a post Vatican II populist sort of way? Should bishops and pastors follow suit and ignore the dysfunctional structures of post Vatican II makings and go rogue? Just wondering, I think I like the hermeneutic of new wine and wine skins!

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #8:
        Well, he is on vacation in the Midwest visiting some long lost cousin. Think flying creates anxiety for him (how rural and provincial).

        What is sad – his comments continue to reveal a complete misunderstanding of ecclesiology and theology and a lack of knowledge about VII documents.

        OTOH, as Deacon just recommended, it would be a good move for him to use that large, old rectory to serve the needs of the poor and homeless in Macon and take a room at the Motel 6 on the nearby interstate. That would be a real gospel call and witness. And it would sure be better than his current preoccupation with all things EF – geez, how clairvoyant is that! It would also refocus his ministry to the *periphery* rather than his current state of self-referentiality. And he could use your post with his parish council to educate them on Francis’s call to *reform* structures (something the church is always doing)

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #18:
        How much time do you spend obsessing over Fr Allan anyway? What are you trying to accomplish by constantly talking about him? I think everyone knows you can’t stand him by now.

    1. @Father Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:
      Fr Allan,
      Even by your usual blog comment standards, that is a mighty delusional piece of spin. I mean, wow. And I am not of the Francis-is-changing-everything hermeneutical community but in the wait-patiently-and-observe-more-than-characterize one.

    2. @Father Allan J. McDonald – comment #7:

      I think perhaps you are confusing collegiality (which is what I’m guessing you mean by “conciliarism”) with Curial bureaucracy. There is nothing uncollegial (in the ecclesiological sense) in loosening the grip of the Curia on things. In fact, the creation of the “G8” of cardinals (almost all of whom a pastors of diocese rather than Curial officials) seems a most collegial move, even if it members of the Curia aren’t particularly happy about it.

      Really, I think your own spin has made you dizzy.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #11:
        By conciliar I mean bloated staffs, committees, councils and the like on diocesan and parish levels where if a pastor or bishop bypasses these empowered groups there will be gnashing and grinding of teeth. However to date including this blog’s post and my own ironies really don’t know what Francis will do as all is clairvoyant conjecture which many seem to have caught from me. Pope Francis can be interpreted in any old way or new way. I am mot sure if that is by design or accident. But if I chose to move out of my rectory to the nearby Motel Six, our pastoral council president and members would have a hissy fit that I bypassed their vote.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #14:
        Good point I could use parish funds to buy it and then hire the needy in my parish to run and staff it! I wonder how that would go over even if I did not consult and did it anyway? Of course I have the bishop to answer to, the pope only has God.

      3. @Father Allan J. McDonald – comment #15:
        If your predecessor had built it on parish land in a way that it could not be readily sold or outsourced for profitable use, then it would be a sunk cost. I wonder what situation that is like? Hmm. Paging the House of Martha.

  8. Fr McDonald #7
    What in heavens name…. must be getting nervous, that hermeneutics on new wine skins applies equally to him too.

  9. Francis has wrapped himself in the papacy of Benedict by publishing the encyclical written by four hands, and in the papacies of both John 23 and John Paul 2 by canonizing them both at the same time.

    He has (with Benedict no less, in one of Benedict’s rare appearances) consecrated the Vatican to Michael the Archangel!!! That became one of the most read and most shared news stories on the Vatican Website.

    In consecrating Vatican City State to St. Michael the Archangel, I ask him to defend us from the evil one and banish him. ”

    “We also consecrate Vatican City State in St. Joseph, guardian of Jesus, the guardian of the Holy Family.

    Francis also assured us in his wineskins homily that

    The Pope then recalled that on the day of Pentecost, the Madonna was there with the disciples: “And where the mother is, the children are safe! All of them!

    Let us ask for the grace of not being afraid of the newness of the Gospel, of not being afraid of the renewal that the Holy Spirit brings, of not being afraid to let go of the passing structures that imprison us

    Surrounded by Mary, Joseph, Michael the Archangel, Benedict, JP2, and John 23 it looks like Francis is preparing to steer the bark of Peter into the storms of reform!!!

    Maybe some people are getting sea sick already?

  10. Allan,

    I realize you’re attempting ironically to say that Francis, not Benedict, is the real autocrat, because he does what he pleases without concern for precedent or curial advice, but I’m afraid your analogies are limping a bit. Though I don’t think Benedict was particularly autocratic, it seems to be that there is considerable difference between bypassing the world’s bishops to authorize a previously abrogated form of Mass and deciding to live somewhere that makes the Papal handlers nervous. The former is at least putatively uncollegial in an specifically ecclesiological sense while the latter is not.

    So if you want to follow the Pope’s example and move into a smaller place, or do anything else that is canonically within your purview as Pastor, go for it, as long as you’re willing to deal with feed/blowback from parishioners. But if you are going to do something that is going to affect your brothers in the presbyterate, you might want to consult them first.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #17:
      Since Pope Francis is popular because he is a populist, he would have been given a pass here if he had been the one to authorize SP, just as is “devil talk” is ignored here and his consistent calls for fidelity to the Magisterium. And if Benedict had said these things and a gang of 8 to assist him, one could only imagine the outcry and refocusing of the 8 he chose. Yes a double standard. But my council is to support the Bishop of Rome no matter who he is and what controversies he creates.

  11. Father Allan J. McDonald : @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #17: But my council is to support the Bishop of Rome no matter who he is and what controversies he creates.

    That is, of course, your prerogative. But it doesn’t make you anymore authentically Catholic than anyone else. There is no disloyalty or double standard in criticizing a non-infallible decision by Pope A and not criticizing one by Pope B if one actually thinks Pope A made a bad decision and Pope B did not. If you think the safest path is to support each and every decision of each and every Pope, knock yourself out. You might get vertigo from shifting your views with every papacy, however.

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #22:
        That poor seal is too tired right now. He was in training in case George Weigel reprised his lightning deconstruct-and-spin-the-encyclical trick in recent days.

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