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April 22, 2013

The election of Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis has been hailed as a belated acknowledgement that the Roman Catholic Church is a global Church. But is it? Does the fact that the pope now hails from Argentina – and spent virtually his entire life in that country – mean the Church now has a more global outlook than under the papacies of those who came from Germany, Poland or Italy?

Or, is one local perspective simply being substituted for another?

We need to be careful here. The Catholic Church is not the pope or the Vatican. It is a universal Church with living faith communities rooted in their respective local cultures. The local churches of Western Canada, for example, are much different than those of even the Eastern United States, let alone those of Spain, Nigeria or the Philippines. The pope and the Curia establish parameters that ensure the Church's universality, but they cannot eviscerate the uniqueness of local faith communities.

Still, one should expect the governing centre of the universal Church would clearly reflect that universality. In that light, Pope Francis' decision to convene a group of eight cardinals from around the world to advise him on the governance of the universal Church and to study "a project of revision" should be greeted warmly.

Does the pope already have "a project of revision" in mind or will this group of eight cardinals devise one? We don't know. Nor should we be too eager to say what that revision should be.

But here is one suggestion, a suggestion that might shed light on what sort of change could give greater influence to prelates from around the world without undermining papal authority. It comes from Sandro Magister, a noted vaticanista who writes in the Italian newspaper L'Espresso.

Magister opines that the reform of central Church governance could begin by giving the world Synod of Bishops, now an advisory body, some deliberative power within the Church albeit under papal authority. In particular, the 12-member committee of bishops from around the world, elected at the end of each synod, could serve as a "council of the crown" to govern the Church in union with the pope.

The job of the pope is a massive one, impossible for one man. As well, the Second Vatican Council's hard-fought imperative for collegiality is still far from its intended realization. This is not a matter for shock or scandal. It simply takes a long time to implement fully the decrees of any council.

Pope Francis has signalled that he intends to reform the Church's governing structures and to operate collegially. It is in the implementation of collegiality, much more than in the reigning pope's birthplace, that one can expect to see the Church's global nature expressed.