The pope’s ‘inverted pyramid’ vision of the church


Many experts argue that Pope Francis’ homily on Oct. 17, 2015 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops is among his most programmatic discourses on his ideas about the church thus far. In that compact but weighty speech, the pope puts forward a vision of the church which he calls an “inverted pyramid,” with the People of God, the base, above what is normally perceived to be the “apex.” The clergy, bishops, cardinals, and even His Holiness the “servant of servants of God,” himself are all located beneath the People, playing the role of undergirding systems of support for the wider believing faithful, not franchise branch managers, or guardians and dispensers of oligarchical stockpiles of grace. The ministers (from “minus” meaning “less”) do not “lord their power” over the rest of the People, but rather serve them effectively and tirelessly. This is the mark of a truly synodal church, which can both teach and listen.

If this vision is going to have practical consequences for the life of the community, it needs to have concrete applications. For as the pope’s spiritual forefather Saint Ignatius of Loyola says, “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”

In recent weeks, Catholics saw a rather awe-inspiring example of exactly such ecclesial applications that put these lofty aspirations into practice. For the first time in living memory, a lay man has been named to head one of the most important Vatican departments. Paolo Ruffini, a longtime Italian journalist and media professional with extensive experience in radio, television and print broadcasting, will now head the Holy See’s Communications Office. He replaces embattled outgoing prefect Msgr. Dario Viganó, who resigned over a recent kerfuffle involving a letter from Pope Benedict XVI, where the text’s manipulated contents (as well as longstanding media ethics) were “blurred,” and which gave rise to widespread criticism.

The Dicastery for Communications plays an exceedingly important role in the Vatican’s intentions to use contemporary technology to pick up the biblical charge to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). The pope believes the Sicilian married man, who is 61 and has worked for such illustrious outlets as RAI, il Messagero, and TV2000, can bring stability and professionalism to the curial division responsible for the Holy See’s Press Office, radio operations, internet and photography services, publishing house, and television productions. The dicastery also has an increasing and unique relationship with L’Osservatore Romano, the formerly independent daily newspaper of the Vatican.

Interestingly, this somewhat shocking move was apparently not the pope’s first choice. Some news outlets have reported that he originally offered the position to a woman, but she had to decline due to previous professional commitments.

The pope continues to reform the curia and to put into action his vision of a co-traveling church, journeying together through history and to the peripheries, both material and existential. To do this successfully, he has already and apparently will continue to rely on the professional competency and capable hands of all those who can fill leadership roles through service, not simply automatically deferring to those who have particular sacerdotal backgrounds or seminary formation.


Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.