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Pope Francis: A Magna Carta for Catholic social services


When John Allen spoke at our Review, Reimagine, Renew conference in February 2016 he suggested that in Pope Francis we have ‘in flesh and bone, a Magna Carta for Catholic social services.’

In his teaching and in his actions, Pope Francis’ preaching of the Gospel is deeply rooted in three pillars:

  • a passion for those on the peripheries,  both geographical and existential

  • a deeply missionary concept of Church – it about reaching out, not maintenance,

  • mercy as the cornerstone spiritual message the world needs today

Allen says that if we understand these three pillars we will understand 90 percent of everything the Pope says and does.


The Pope can set an agenda, and a tone for discussion – Pope Francis has incredible media cut through, within the Church and much more broadly. 

His message – this Magna Carta - is a reinforcement of the work of Catholic social services. 

We should take heart from it, and use it to grow our contribution to the building of the Kingdom. 

Let’s explore the three pillars:

a passion for those on the peripheries,

This is a Pope who is leading us to embrace the marginalised, the forgotten, .. .the overlooked of the earth – his first trip outside Rome as Pope, on 8 June 2013, was to Lampedusa; he visits prisons as he travels the world, etc.  He contrasts a “throw-away culture”, in which whole categories of humanity are regarded as essentially disposable, and a “culture of encounter”, and he extends this encounter to creation as a whole.

Many of our programs embrace those on the margins; many of our people are so good at this.  We need to keep the margins to the forefront of our thinking.

We need to lead others to embrace this approach to the world – as many of you do, involving in your programs politicians and public servants; challenging other parts of the Church to move to the margins.

a deeply missionary concept of Church

As the Pope has put it, ‘for the Church to get out of the sacristy and into the street.’  Missionary is to be distinguished from institutional, structural, political.  It’s about bringing the Gospel to people, which we as Catholic social services do through our actions and our relationships.

There is an invitation to all of us to be bold, to take risks, to move into unchartered waters:  to “Put out into the deep”.  This expression is from Luke 5:  Not long after Jesus has proclaimed his mission

as the anointed one of God, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, …to set the downtrodden free

he got into the boat of his first disciples and asked them to ‘put out into deep’.

That is the Episcopal Motto of Bishop Vincent Long – he reflects on ‘putting out into the deep’ on a boat into the South China Sea, and now ‘putting out into the deep’ as a concerned pastor for his people.

This is a challenge of leadership:  in general, and in our dealings within the Church.

Mercy as the key spiritual message for today’s world

Allen quotes the Pope:  This time is a kairos of mercy”, - a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation.

‘This is a Pope who believes the … reason the Holy Spirit placed him on the throne of Peter, was to lift up, dust off .. the Church’s message of mercy.

‘… so often the world has heard our judgement with crystal clarity and now it is time for them to hear and to see and to feel and to taste, and even to smell, our mercy.  

‘I believe Pope Francis will be remembered as the one who made that message ‘hear-able’, who made that message ‘see-able’, who made that message ‘feel-able’ in his own time. ‘

That’s our role too – we are at the heart of where Pope Francis is calling the Church to be.  That’s what we do – bring mercy to life.  We are challenged to do it better, and to draw more into this endeavour.


John Allen rounds out these three elements of the Magna Carta:

‘It is easy to talk about mercy. It is easy to extol the peripheries and it is easy to pledge oneself to mission.‘

What is difficult, of course, is to translate that into practice.

‘To make that a success you are going to need many qualities of heart and mind. … imagination… perseverance. You are going to need patience… a dialogic spirit.   ‘But I guarantee you that one quality… without which we cannot succeed in this endeavour, is a lively sense of humour.

‘If you cannot occasionally laugh at the challenges that stand before you, laugh at the surreal nature of the situations in which you find yourself, that is a prescription for perpetual heartburn …..and the way madness lies. ‘

The bottom line is we are called to extend out impact on the wellbeing of the people we serve, and we do this through Impact on policies, Impact on  services, and our own engagement with people, and that of all of our colleagues

As part of this we are called to extend the impact of the Church generally on the wellbeing of people who are on the margins. That’s how we respond to God’s love for us.  That’s how we preach the Gospel.  That’s how we invite others to work with us in building the Kingdom of God.

Denis Fitzgerald
December 2016 

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