He (Pope Francis) describes the bishop in three presences; in front of the people pointing the way, in the midst of the people as a merciful presence and walking behind them helping those who lag behind and, “…above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths.” He does not suggest what these paths are but, I think, this is a significant new way of thinking – for people and bishops. By saying this, the Pope suggests that, in some circumstances, the people in the pews know the way forward better than the bishops. Some bishops might feel threatened by this and many lay-Catholics feel apprehensive because for so long the bishop has simply given us direction or, at worst, told us what to think. This will be a revolutionary way of thinking and acting for many Catholics. He tells bishops to listen to everyone, not just those who will tell them what they want to hear.
The real test of this will be how widely the world’s bishops consult in preparation for a Synod on the Family that Pope Francis has called in October 2014. Will the voices of people who have differing opinions be heard in Rome at that Synod? Will local bishops accurately present the voice of ordinary Catholics?