Pope Francis has described Benedict XVI as “a prophet” for predicting that the Catholic Church would become a smaller but more faithful institution in the future.
Speaking during a private meeting with Jesuit priests and seminarians earlier this month, the pope said he believed that this was one of the pope emeritus’ most “profound intuitions.”
“Pope Benedict was a prophet of this Church of the future, a Church that will become smaller, lose many privileges, be more humble and authentic and find energy for the essential,” Pope Francis said during the meeting with Jesuits at the apostolic nunciature in Malta on April 3.
“It will be a Church that is more spiritual, poorer, and less political: a Church of the little ones.”
His comments were published on Holy Thursday in the Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica, two days before Benedict XVI celebrates his 95th birthday.
Pope Francis visited his predecessor on April 13, ahead of the pope emeritus’ birthday on April 16, Holy Saturday.
“As a bishop, Benedict had said: let us prepare ourselves to be a smaller Church. This is one of his most profound intuitions,” Pope Francis said.
The Argentine pope was likely referring to comments made by Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, in a 1969 radio broadcast in Germany, in which the theologian reflected on the Church’s future.
Ratzinger said: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning … As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.”
He added: “But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. … The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right.”
“It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed.”
Pope Francis noted in his conversation with Malta’s Jesuits that part of the reason there are fewer vocations in Europe is because of the decline in marriages and the number of children per family in recent decades.
“Before, there were three or four children per family. Now often only one. Marriages are decreasing, while people think about growing in their profession,” Francis said.
“I would tell the mamas of these 35-year-olds who live with their families of origin to stop ironing their shirts!”
The pope also reminded the 38 Maltese Jesuits present at the meeting that the Church should not focus on numbers, but on proclaiming the Gospel.
“The joy of the Church is to evangelize. The real problem is not whether we are few, in short, but whether the Church evangelizes … This is the need of today, the vocation of the Church today,” Francis said.
During the 40-minute conversation, the pope was also asked about the connection between evangelization and the issue of climate change.
Pope Francis responded: “Not taking care of the climate is a sin against the gift of God which is creation.”
“For me, it is a form of paganism: it is using what the Lord has given us for his glory and praise as if it were an idol.”
“In this sense, taking care of our common home is already ‘evangelizing.’ And it is urgent. If things go on as they are now, our children will no longer be able to live on our planet,” he said.