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Rev. Paul J. Philibert, O.P. ’58 and Rev. Robert F. Randall

Randall Professor says Pope Francis is quietly transforming the Catholic Church

Pope Francis is quietly moving authority in the Catholic Church beyond a centralization in Rome and out toward a wider participation in Church authority at its periphery, where it can adapt to changing times and cultures, said Rev. Paul J. Philibert, O.P. ’58, the Rev. Robert F. Randall Professor in Christian Culture at Providence College.

Father Philibert, an expert in pastoral theology who taught at PC from 1968-1973, presented the fall Randall Lecture, “New Pope, Old Problem: True and False Reform in the Church,” before 150 people in Aquinas Hall Lounge. The professorship honors Father Randall, who taught for more than 25 years in the Department of English, Development of Western Civilization Program, and Liberal Arts Honors Program.

“Surely you have noticed that we have been living through some months of remarkable, if quiet, readjustments since the election of Pope Francis,” said Father Philibert. “Our new pope has been unobtrusively but steadily unlocking the cage that has held the Roman Catholic Church captive to imperial dreams for centuries.”

Father Philibert said the Church has been trapped in the nostalgic ideal of Christendom, the era when the Church in Rome was a geopolitical power that ruled Europe. The notion kept the Church from fully implementing the reforms of Vatican II because of the “fear of finally letting go of the taken-for-granted absolutism of Roman authority,” he said.

In 2010, Father Philibert translated True and False Reform in the Church, a book by French author Rev. Yves Congar, O.P. When the book was published in 1950, Father Congar was fired from his professorship and forbidden to teach. But Pope John XXIII read and annotated the book and it inspired the reforms of Vatican II.

Father Congar warned about “being so attached to what went before that there is no room for development,” said Father Philibert.

Father Philibert made a distinction between the Church’s dogmas and essential structures, which never change, and the Christian world, which is “the expression of the Church’s adaptation to changing times and culture.”

“Answers to questions about the world religions that sufficed for the 19th century don’t fit the challenges we are meeting in the 21st century,” said Father Philibert. “The field of reproductive biology is booming with new discoveries and new insights. The challenge is to discriminate between what is essential to the Church’s structure and what needs to be expressed anew.”

Pope Benedict provided the keys

Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to leave office voluntarily in March “already has modified the aura of absolutism so long attributed to the Holy See,” said Father Philibert.

“If Pope Francis has been quietly unlocking the cage, Pope Benedict by his unprecedented resignation gave Francis the keys — and slowly Francis has been discovering where the locks are,” Father Philibert said.

The conclave of cardinals that gathered in Rome to elect a new pope “was spared the trauma of mourning a deceased pope, and it was forced to address some dramatic administrative failures in the Roman Curia,” said Father Philibert. “The gentle voice of an Argentinian bishop stunned the assembly by pointing out that the Vatican must learn once again to pay attention to the Church on the peripheries.”

Many cardinals have acknowledged that they were looking for a leader who would reform and govern the Curia, not be driven and intimidated by it, he said.

As for Pope Francis, “Don’t look for a ‘liberalizing’ of the Church — not new doctrines, but new dialogue to embrace the world and frame conversation with the world,” said Father Philibert. “Don’t look for a new morality, but a new anthropology — not new principles that will change the rules, but new attention to lay experience, feminine insight, and cultural diversity.”

“He has already shown us how he means to govern: not denouncing errors but rephrasing the Church’s message; not speaking from on high but from the midst of the people of God; and not bound to customs and privileges that restrict his creativity and his pastoral heart, but free to step outside the customary vesture, residence, protocol, and relations of a Roman pontiff so as to be a true pastor for a world hungry for compassion.”

A surprise for Father Randall

Father Randall arrived at PC in 1973 just as Father Philibert was leaving, College President Brian J. Shanley, O.P. ’80 said in his introduction. Back then, Father Randall heard people talk about how the College needed more professors of Father Philibert’s caliber — not realizing they had just that person in Father Randall, Father Shanley said.

“Father Philibert, with whom I lived for a year at Notre Dame, is a very good cook,” said Father Shanley, “but Father Randall is definitely a better golfer.”

Father Philibert added that Father Randall also is a composer of music and had shared several of his compositions. As a surprise, Father Philibert worked with the Department of Music to present a mini-concert of two of the selections at the close of his lecture.

As Father Philibert displayed the lyrics on a large screen, Father Randall sang along to his music performed by Dr. Sang Woo Kang, associate professor, on piano; Dr. Patricia W. Cichy, assistant professor, on oboe; and Dr. Todd J. Harper, associate professor, vocals.

— Vicki-Ann Downing

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