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Innovation by the Vatican

Fr. Kevin Nadolski | Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Last week Pope Francis once again excited the world with his words, as he published “Evangelii Gaudium,” the first lengthy papal exhortation written exclusively by him.  John Allen, the Vatican observer for the National Catholic Reporter called it the pope’s “I Have a Dream” text, referencing the epic work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the most famous religious leader in our nation’s history.

It appears that the parallel to King’s nation-changing speech is no hyperbole. What the pope outlines in this text could very well alter the course of the Church. To name just a few highlights, he challenges the church to be:

• Joyful
• Focused especially on evangelizing and its missionary work – near and far
• Dedicating its energies to helping the poor and those on the margins
• Hospitable to all people, for all are welcome in the Church he is leading
• Work against greed in all its forms, especially where economic structures threaten the dignity of the poor
• Less intramural and more focused on what happens beyond the Church doors
• Less Vatican-centric, entrusting greater authority to local Church leaders
• Filled with good preachers, as he dedicates a healthy portion of his writing to teaching deacons, priests and bishops about drafting and delivering good homilies

Here, Pope Francis does mark a clear change from his predecessors; he also marks clear continuity with them. How does he do both?

He both innovates and iterates. Actually, he innovates the tradition he is repeating from those who once sat in the chair of St. Peter.

Enter Steve Jobs, the master innovator. Yet, he was someone who struggled with his innovations, and, since his death, the Apple tradition he established has limped a bit, with some saying progress is moving too slowly. While Jobs and the Apple behemoth have invented many fine, lifestyle- and culture-changing products, it has done so only from building on what they inherited or what had already been in the market. Now, Apple product consumers – and stockholders, more accurately – demand something new almost annually. A recent Macworld columnist suggested that innovation is slow and iteration is strong, for “only three times” in 12 years has the company introduced something truly new.

I experience this same phenomenon in many Catholics demanding almost a new Church. The pope will not do this, for he is – as we all are called to be from our baptism – faithful to the Tradition of the Church. His vision may be new, but it is and will continue to be aligned with God’s mission Jesus entrusted to us.

Yes, Pope Francis could be called an innovator, for his fresh ways of teaching millennia-old truths are inspiring and invigorating. He is also reiterating the ancient truths and behaviors of Jesus, the early church, and – more recently – Vatican II.  

Maybe we like our Church basic, smart, user-friendly, intuitive and able to be accessed by everyone – of all generations, countries and education levels.  

Obviously, neither Apple is taking a lead from the pope, nor is the pope looking to the Cupertino-based tech company. However, the similarities between elements of the impact of the gentle tsunami of Pope Francis on the Church – and the world – and the ever-growing pervasive presence of the products inspired by Jobs. And those similarities are based on the innovation common to both.

Regardless of what is innovated, it is usually a reiteration of something already built, thought, said, designed, invented or conceived. The greatest innovators pay consistently close attention to their times and the fields in which they work so that they may grow what is precisely needed. Jesus listened to the cries of the poor and reiterated the Jewish law with a fresh gentleness that brought people to life and freed them from the throes of a rigid religiosity.

Jesus was probably the greatest reiterator of the only true innovator, the Father, who created all – from nothing.

Fr. Kevin Nadolski, OSFS, a priest with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, works for his community as director of development and communications. He has served the church as a Catholic high school teacher, campus minister, and principal, as well as vocation and formation director for the Oblates. He lives with his community in Wilmington, Del., and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed in the Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.