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For many years, the refrain coming from Rome as been “reform the reform.”

It has a catchy ring. But what does it really mean? Is “reform the reform” just another way of saying “back in the barn”?

Let me describe an annual event that took place on the Minnesota farm where I grew up — a diversified family farm that included a dairy herd.

To maintain consistent milk production, calves were born most months of the year. Those born in the cold months were kept in the barn until spring. Their pens were small and often crowded. When the warmth of spring arrived, we would open the barn door and let the winter calves out.

The calves would hesitatingly venture out into the barnyard. They would gingerly take a few steps into a new and unknown world. Then, suddenly, they would find their running legs. And would they run.

What a sight! Tails in the air, the calves would run in all directions. Some would even run into fences. It took a while for them to settle down, join the rest of the herd and make their way to the lush, green pasture.

Whenever people are “penned up” in tight, over-controlling institutional structures, they are like the penned-up calves in many ways. When the “doors” of the institutional structures are opened, through reform or revolution, people who have been confined start to run in all directions. Some run into “fences.”

The good dairy farmer understands that the calves will run wild for a while. But he has patience and takes the necessary time to gently guide them to the lush pasture. If he panics, he may try to get the calves back in the barn — back in those small, confining pens.

When a country takes a significant step toward freedom, some people quickly wish they were back in the old safe place.

After America won its freedom from monarchial rule and was trying to establish democracy, some wanted to reestablish monarchy by enthroning George Washington as the new King George. Luckily for America, Washington declined the offer. Instead he led our country as an elected chief executive, and we became a republic.

When the Soviet Union came apart, some Russians longed for the stability of the past, “the good old days” of Stalin. Some even want to return to the days of the czars. Today, some Russians laud Vladimir Putin for returning to authoritarian ways, recentralizing authority and suppressing freedoms.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read how the Jews, freed from slavery in Egypt, became upset while wandering in the desert and longed to return to Egypt and their former condition.

The Second Vatican Council opened the windows (and doors) of the church. It called for reform and renewal. It called for the church to be more fully alive in today’s world. Many people felt freed from the tight confines of the church’s imperial/medieval structures.

After Vatican II, some in the church “ran wild.” And, yes, there were a number of implementation missteps that needed to be addressed. Some leaders in the church tried to lead the community of faith to lush, green pastures. Other leaders were struck with fear. They claimed the council went too far. For the last several decades, they have been retreating from the council’s reforms under the banner of “reform the reform.”

When “reform the reform” primarily means turning away from today’s world and returning to past confining structures, it is nothing more than trying to get the faithful back into the imperial/medieval barn.

Today more than ever, our church needs leaders, both ordained and lay, who are capable of leading God’s people to the verdant pastures of the abundant life promised by Jesus.

May the new pope be such a leader.


Brian Willette is a retired psychologist and management consultant in Minneapolis.