The new year is well underway, as is the new semester. These new beginnings were preceded by the beginning of the new liturgical year in the Christian calendar, which begins with Advent, the four weeks leading up to the season of Christmas. In the Christian liturgical calendar, a three-year cycle focuses the readings that are used Sunday by Sunday in the ongoing worship life of the church. The three years focus, on the gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke and each year these readings are supplemented by readings from the gospel of John. The current cycle of readings comes from Mark and the past Sunday marked the observance of the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Mark is generally recognized as the first gospel written and is certainly the shortest. It is characterized not only by its brevity, but also its sense of urgency. Things happen, as Mark writes, immediately after one another. The Greek word usually translated “immediately” appears seven times in the first chapter and forty times overall in the gospel. The Kingdom of God is at hand, says Jesus and Mark seems determined to establish that it is indeed at hand, making its presence felt and that life is changing.
Perhaps Pope Francis would be well advised to pay attention to this gospel as he continues to explore ways to introduce some changes to attitudes and practices in the Roman Catholic Church through his pontificate. This month, he has announced the appointment of fifteen new cardinals. Eleven of them come from other than first world nations, including Tonga, Myanmar, Thailand and Ethiopia. Francis announced to those gathered in St. Peter’s Square that the new cardinals show the tie that the church of Rome has to the “churches in the world.” Traditionally, the Christian Church in the southern hemisphere (with the exception of the liberationists of Latin America) have held conservative views and practices, but the appointment of these cardinals does signify the beginning of a shift from a European hegemony in its hierarchical structure. With Pope Francis already in his late seventies, those recently appointed will almost undoubtedly be among those who select the next Pope.
This is part of other small changes emerging in the Vatican, and which will eventually be felt throughout the Catholic church. In December he levied a harsh criticism of the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, denouncing those who value power over principle and those who forget the joy they are supposed to bring to the world in the name of God. Out of this, he called a meeting to take place next month to begin considering proposals for the “reform of the Roman curia,” the bureaucratic structure of the Vatican.
Last October, the Pope called a gathering to begin discussions around some of the current issues being debated in and outside the church, including marriage, contraception, divorce and homosexuality. This synod, consisting mostly of bishops from around the world is an extraordinary move. Debate will take place and debate will be seen to be an important part of theological process which in turn will inform church belief and practice. While no recommendation has come to change church teaching on key issues such as opposition to gay marriage, there is an attempt to soften the church’s position. Frequently, Pope Francis has called on others be less judgmental and more open in mercy and grace.
This may be a slow process. The example of Vatican II, the Second Vatican Council that took three years with thousands of participants, brought significant change to the Catholic church and has taken years for that change to be fully felt. Perhaps Francis has captured the sense of urgency that is so clear in the gospel of Mark and recognizes that for the church in the twenty-first century to be relevant, meaningful and engaged. There is no time like the present and that change must be considered, immediately.