Is the Church Ready for Radical Simplicity? by Gene Ciarlo


Christians gathered as the body of Christ should be about simplicity, Saint Francis–inspired simplicity in word and deed, a 12th-century poverty of spirit. This is not the same as 21st-century Franciscan simplicity. There is a vast difference within that 900-year span, just as we in our Catholic Church are oceans apart from the spirit of Jesus as recorded by those who knew him best.

In the time of Saint Francis, the Roman Catholic Church was a corrupt earthly power, clearly not a living example of the mind or spirit of Jesus from whom it all originated well over a thousand years before. What was the church thinking? What was the model or prototype for the vision of church that the post-apostolic period proposed to carry forward?

Francis di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi, Italy, in 1181. Hope of a church coming to new life sprang from him when, in a moment of deep introspective prayer, he heard Jesus speak, “Go, rebuild my church.” But we must start from the beginning to understand how this moment came to be. The “band of twelve,” and perhaps others who attached themselves to those original disciples, were largely in the dark once Jesus left them so abruptly. Were they supposed to take up his work somehow and continue doing what he proposed that they should do? It may be imagined without much effort that dark clouds were beginning to gather over the small band of followers who were trying to imitate, to live out his lifestyle. It wasn’t until the fourth century, during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine, that the threatening darkness descended and the church of the Way of Jesus began to become something else, something other than a band of brothers and sisters trying to remember and emulate his style of life, his value system, his understanding of the reign of God, his Father, as it was to be lived on earth.

Is it human nature, this apparent uncertainty and waffling between light and darkness? And when we do make decisions about which way to go, are we inclined to choose a way that is other-centered? Was Emperor Constantine so enamored of the lifestyle of Jesus and his followers that he wanted the whole world to know about it, and thus consecrated the empire by way of the Council of Nicaea in 325 to the Christian way of life?

History seems to imply that such a coup would unite a whole people, establish order, and bring harmony and unity to a shaky Roman Empire. Fortuitously, a grand church council would create a very positive environment for this new way of life initiated by Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, did Constantine embrace, heart and mind, soul and spirit, the way of the followers of Christ? Most likely his intention in initiating an ecumenical council was inclined toward earthly power, a catalyst for unity within his empire, rather than a lifestyle for his subjects patterned after what he learned of the Way of Jesus and his early band of brothers and sisters.

There was no letup in the self-aggrandizing, materialistic, and mundane disposition of the Roman Church from this point onward. We, over the centuries, have had our moments of renewal and reform. There have been enough charismatic leaders over the centuries who have worked to bring us out of darkness into a new and wonderful light patterned after those early days of euphoria, persecution notwithstanding, that characterized the ever-growing band of followers of the Way. There were popes, leaders, and charismatic figures who lit up the prophetic skies of history to say, “This is the Way.”

In our time, we often cite Pope John XIII as the light shining in the darkness, charismatic enough to captivate the masses and have them shout, “Aggiornamento!” Yes! Let us go back to our roots and rediscover who we are and what we are all about. The results of Vatican Council II, the documents and volumes of work, fill libraries. There were obvious physical changes in word and worship, at times with great fanfare. But ultimately it wasn’t enough for human nature, this aggiornamento. It wasn’t enough for our innate, clouded human nature that aches and hungers to acquire power in the earthly sense of the term. It didn’t take long for factions: “He meant to say this. No, this is where the words of that great theologian were leading.” We started being very mundane all over again. Words, words, words; how we love words and ideas. But the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church was not meant to collect dust on bookshelves.


Pope Francis, another very lowly and humble-seeming pope, came on the scene just in time to grasp by the shoulders a floundering church—not just the Roman Catholic Church, but religions in general that were and still are in the throes of decline. We cannot deny it. One primary reason for people of all ages abandoning the church is that the whole of humanity is presently somersaulting through an accelerated period in science and technology, in human progress, to the extent that it is very easy for us to say that we no longer need religion, no longer need the answers to life’s questions that religion offers us. We have outgrown religion, we say. We have come of age. Look at what we can do.

Broadly speaking, Christian theological development has been left in the dust of the Middle Ages, with few noteworthy theologians willing to risk their necks on the chopping block of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The leadership of the church since the Council of Trent, and its associated catechetical programming, seemed satisfied with a question-and-answer kind of Christianity. All that was expected, needed, and required was one’s simple assent to the church and its lifestyle. Church teaching barely spoke to the requisite conversion of heart. Habits of mind and action seemed much more important than creating habits of the heart. Rote religion captured center stage in the ranks of membership in the Catholic Church, and the sacrament of confirmation sealed them as soldiers of Jesus Christ, ready to defend the faith.

But from what, we might ask, and for whom? The spirit of compassion, love, and unity hinted at in the books of the Christian testament ceded to a book of questions and definite answers with hardly a commitment of mind and heart, soul and spirit, to what Jesus was all about. Roman Catholic Christianity suffered a tragic blow without a commitment to Jesus born of parental nurturing, study, Scripture, and a growing thirst to understand and appreciate this man from Nazareth. It was all so small, so primitive, so unsophisticated; so much a part of another age, another period in our history of growth, self-understanding, and awareness of life and the universe. It was poor even by the standards of the Council of Trent.

And yet mark this. Here is the irony of it all. We are probably growing into the most spiritual time in the history of humanity, of creation, of earth and the universe and our own self-awareness, but we are not taking advantage of it because of our small-mindedness. We are growing into a mysterious spiritual life, one which only the heart and not roundtable discussions can really become aware of. We may be only just beginning to understand ourselves and what life in the spirit is all about. And we think we have outgrown religion. The irony of it all! Yes, we have outgrown religion; we are just verging on a spiritual life of the created order in which we are totally ensconced and yet too blind to see.


Walking blindly, pushed by the Spirit, the church in our time is presently cultivating what has come to be called synodality. This was a clever move on the part of Pope Francis, whether or not he was totally cognizant of what he was proposing or how it would evolve. The Roman Curia and other churchmen in positions of authority, with voices that could sway tall buildings and move the hearts of lesser ecclesiastical mortals, would boom out their disapproval of making any serious changes not proceeding from the heaven-ordained top downward. So, humble and common in appearance, Pope Francis decided to start from the bottom up. Let the people do the hard work of deliberation. Then those at the top may rend their uniquely clerical garments and lavish lifestyles, but what can they do when they are being overwhelmed by the masses and millions who are putting bread on their tables and gold in their coffers? It all sounds so medieval and part of ancient history. There has not really been much change: only the lace trim and the silk brocade have ceded to plain linen and straight seams. Human nature does not mutate easily.

Synodality is happening in the Roman Catholic Church, and it is coming from those who used to be considered the “least” of the brothers and sisters, those at the bottom of the multiple ladders of authority in the church—a church that never should have come to understand itself, especially so early in its history, through the lens of worldly power. There were many good ideas put forth and documented in the 2023 gathering of synodal representatives round-tabled in Rome. But there are pitfalls and less-than-total optimism in the good things happening in this synodal method of tapping into the minds and hearts of the laity, of the common people, of the Christian faithful who are speaking out according to what they believe and understand about church and the Way of Jesus.

Fittingly, in timeless ecclesiastical style, the proceedings have been very neatly detailed on paper. But apparently—and perhaps only apparently—not much has been happening on the pastoral and practical level. If it has, stealthily and unawares, it is not because of Rome or even Pope Francis, but in spite of them. But wait. The time is not right yet; another synodal assembly is planned for October 2024. The process is not to be rushed.

Words and ideas, new hopes and aspirations, continue to be recorded in the synodal documents: communion, participation, mission, all key words; episcopal collegiality exercised in a synodal church; authentic discipleship; the juxtaposing and inseparable reality of Eucharist and Word. All are so important. Yet all have already been said time and time again, if we would only reread the documents from Vatican Council II promulgated back in 1965.

Listening is a key word, stressed time and again. We must listen to one another. And then, of course, there are always the final touches to any universal document emitted from the Catholic Church in our time: ecumenism and evangelization, notably in a digital culture. Last but not least, we must never forget what has humbled the Catholic Church in the 21st century, the sex abuse scandal. There. It all has been said—again.

Through all of this verbiage, this world of great ideas, important as they may be, the practical and pragmatic wait patiently in the wings ready to be welcomed into the limelight, into the world of flesh and blood, the concrete and human. This will take longer to digest, to critique, to ponder and to pray over. It involves real men and women, their lifestyles and how they may profoundly influence the future of the church, including the role of women and the evolution of the clerical state.  

When we are dealing with flesh and blood, the bickering will necessarily begin. Should women be ordained to the diaconate? What extended roles should deacons play in the church? We have not even begun to touch the sacredness of who may preside at Eucharist. That is presently untouchable. There is a power struggle between clergy and laity, between men and women, whether or not we want to acknowledge and deal with it. It is happening unawares because we are proud and fallen, graceful and sinful. We are not humble. We seek authority, another word for power and recognition. We have to stop.

What was the mind of Jesus? The last thing he sought was power. But what about his miracles, his manifestations of godly power? The gospel writers were much more interested in Jesus’s so-called miracles than he was. Why do they impress us more than his words? Because they demonstrate a power which is our downfall, secular and spiritual. We must stop, but thus far the work of the Synod has upheld the grandeur of place and status as we humans are wont to embrace.

Do you know the way out of this obvious dilemma of human versus divine? “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29). The bywords for the rest of the Synod as it proceeds in 2024 should be very simple, embedded in the hearts of every participant and emblazoned across their minds before they open their mouths to speak: Radical simplicity, and a place for everyone not according to their wants, status in the church, academic achievements, or human inclinations, but according to their gifts and charisms. They bring to the table nothing other than who they are and the gifts they have to offer the body of believers who follow the Way. From now on the church must no longer be seen and acted upon as an earthly institution. It is the only way out of what we humans have created in our thirst for power and authority. ♦

Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white. 

Image: Daniele Crespi, Study for a Reclining St. Francis, ca. 1628-30.

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