Once, when then-Cardinal Bergoglio was brainstorming ideas in Buenos Aires, he wondered whether parishes should set up small storefront outposts, welcome and outreach centers that would address the material and spiritual needs of parishioners and non-Catholics alike.
Some of his priests were apparently startled, if not downright aghast. If we set up such storefronts, they politely protested, some people might go there and not come to the church itself!
Bergoglio, ever plain-spoken and adept at getting right to the heart of the matter, responded with words like these: Well, are they coming to church now?
Are they coming to church now? The Catholic Church has been decades-slow to confront that painful question in any meaningful way. The percentage of those calling themselves “strong” Catholics in the United States is about as low as it’s been in thirty years. Only 67% of Brazilians call themselves Catholics at all, down sharply from 83% about two decades ago.
Just imagine if Apple or Starbucks were suffering analogously precipitous slides in two of their biggest markets. Surely the whole organization would engage in an urgent search for solutions. Surely the starting assumption would be: We can’t keep doing the same old things and expect our fortunes to improve.
As for us Catholics? Well, I’ve attended weekly mass for years and never once heard this profound problem raised, much less been asked whether those of us in the pews might have ideas for turning things around. That’s denial — the unwillingness to face a difficult problem, brainstorm solutions at all levels of the organization, and try out new approaches.
Pope Francis, thankfully, does seem willing to try new approaches. Less than two weeks into his papacy, he wrote to Argentine bishops, “A Church that does not go out of itself sooner or later sickens from the stale air of closed rooms.” He encouraged them to seek out new “frontiers” and to “grow in boldness.” He acknowledged that mistakes would be made, that there would be “accidents in the street.” But, he concluded, “I wish to say to you frankly that I prefer a thousand times an injured Church to a sick Church.”
Those two traits — his frontier spirit and his willingness to tolerate the occasional mistakes that will inevitably accompany bold new initiatives — deeply reflect the Jesuit tradition in which Bergoglio was formed for priesthood. The Jesuits’ first great hero, almost equal in stature to founder Ignatius of Loyola, was sixteenth-century Francis Xavier. Dispatched to the Far East with only a few days notice, he ventured off to India, Japan, and China’s outskirts, becoming the first westerner to set foot in many of the places he walked. He tried to learn the languages and culture of those he visited, experimented with new approaches, relied on his own initiative without micromanagement from “headquarters,” and failed a lot but kept going. His frontier spirit became a hallmark of Jesuit culture, reenacted countless times over centuries.
That same vision totally captivated Bergoglio. As a young Jesuit, he too wanted to go to Japan but was denied permission by his superiors, who thought Bergoglio’s health too fragile for the rigors of overseas work. (Ha! I guess the indefatigable, 77-year old pope is proving that he is up to the rigors of working abroad.)
Pope Bergoglio understands that today’s frontier is not in some far away geography but right around the corner: those who feel alienated by Catholicism, the homeless or marginalized who feel excluded from society, the young adults who find organized religion stodgy and oppressive, and many others.
Trouble is — and I hate to say it about the church I love — too few churchmen manifest the frontier mindset, adventurous spirit, and risk-openness needed to engage these populations that have been slipping away for decades. One church not far from my neighborhood doesn’t even post the schedule of masses outside the building. That’s a sorry symbol of a church closed in on itself, one that doesn’t even let the neighbors know when it’s open.
The Catholic church is blessed with wonderful clerics, but their priestly formation never emphasized the entrepreneurial spirit we now need. Many were educated in risk-averse seminaries and church bureaucracies steeped in the mantra that all the church’s ills were caused by too much experimentation after Vatican II. So, instead of thinking, “We desperately need to try new approaches,” the instinct is generally, “We just need to be clear about our beliefs and keep things under control.”
We’ve made the mistake of thinking that doctrinal clarity alone is the solution; at best, it was the first step on the very long journey of making Catholicism intelligible, interesting, and attractive to the modern world. We’ve simply been failing to do so; witness those sorry statistics above.
What specific steps will turn our fortunes around? If the answers were straightforward, the church would have figured them out by now. That’s exactly why we need, as a first step, to encourage new experimental initiatives at every level: new programs for inserting our church among the poor or expanding our service to the elderly or marginalized; social media efforts that don’t stop with a papal twitter account; new forms of outreach in local neighborhoods; and dozens more initiatives.
Think of it as Catholicism’s “venture capital” effort: the church should solicit new ideas, fund small pilots, study successes and failures, and quickly replicate good ideas.
Some may argue that the church lacks the finances or personnel for such widespread experimentation. Nonsense. Millions of lay Catholics work at the leading edges of social work, academic research, marketing, media, finance, and dozens more fields. Many will serve their church in this way if called upon, and, importantly, if they are empowered with real authority to lead such initiatives.
The real challenge won’t be finding talent and resources, but our institutional risk aversion. Pope Francis is pointing us toward the frontier, but the hierarchy at all levels must lead the way into this uncharted territory. And the right spirit will only take root when they themselves really enjoy being on the frontiers: trying new things, making mistakes, navigating without a clear roadmap, and learning as they go.
That’s another reason why greater lay leadership will be essential. After all, lay Catholics have been formed in tumultuous modern workplaces that are subject to constant change. They have learned that institutions wither unless they adapt constantly; they understand that ingenuity and risk openness are critical; they also know that the answers rarely come with black and white certainty when operating in ambiguous, uncertain twenty-first century environments. Let’s recognize and call upon these gifts of the spirit.
To anticipate one criticism: I’m not suggesting that we scrap, poll test, or vote on the Catechism: I honor the teaching authority of our shepherds. But we need the humility to admit that our outreach as a church has simply not been working. And we need to trust God enough to discern new ways forward, and to accept that mistakes — accidents in the street — will inevitably occur along the way.
One of a bishop’s duties, Pope Francis said, is to walk behind his people, “ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can sniff out new paths.” Let’s start sniffing our way through the modern frontier.
Chris Lowney, a onetime Jesuit seminarian and a former managing director of JP Morgan & Co, is the author of Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads.