Pope Francis in a hard hitting talk on the eve of Christmas, called on all the members of the Roman Curia to examine their consciences on 15 possible “diseases” (“illnesses”) that they may have contracted during their lives in the service of the church.
Addressing the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, clergy, religious and laity who are his closely collaborators on December 22, the Jesuit pope urged them to acknowledge any sin they may have committed “in thoughts, words, acts or omissions” in this catalogue of 15 “diseases,” and then turn to God and ask his pardon and forgiveness so as to be able to start anew in his service.
He did so as he prepared to celebrate his second Christmas as pope, and in the midst of his efforts to reform the Roman Curia, a task the cardinals in their pre-conclave meetings asked the new pope to do. But Francis, who has been spiritual director to countless people over four decades, knows well that it is not difficult to restructure the Curia, the most difficult task is “to reform” the hearts, minds, attitudes and lifestyles of those who work in the Roman Curia and other institutions of the Holy See.
It is for this reason that the 78-year-old Jesuit pope, devoted this year’s traditional pre-Christmas greeting to the Roman Curia into a forceful pitch for the spiritual conversion of all who work there. He wants especially to bring about “the spiritual reform of the Roman Curia” even before he restructures it.
He began by reminding everybody at Christmas time, God showed his love for us “not by giving us something, or sending us a message or some messengers but by giving us himself” and “by taking on himself our human condition and our sins to reveal his divine life, his immense grace and his gratuitous pardon.” Christmas, he said, “is the appointment with God who was born in the poverty of the grotto of Bethlehem to teach us the power of humility. Christmas is, in fact, the feast of light that was not received by ‘the elect people’ but by ‘the poor and simple people’ that waited for the salvation of the Lord.”
Then, drawing on the image of the church as “the mystical body of Christ,” the pope said, “it would be beautiful to think of the Roman Curia as a small model of the Church, that as a ‘body’ seeks seriously and daily to be more alive, more healthy, more harmonious and more united in itself and with Christ.” But, it is “a complex body” with many offices and people, from different languages, cultures and nationalities “that do not all have the same task, but are coordinated for a functioning that is efficient and healthy.”
But, he said, “the Curia—like the Church—cannot live without having a vital, personal, authentic and solid relationship with Christ. A member of the Curia who does not nourish oneself daily with that food will become a bureaucrat, (a formalist, a functionary, an employee), a branch that dries up and slowly, slowly dies, and then is thrown far away…. Let it be clear to all of us that without Him we will not be able to do anything..”
He told them that “the more we are intimately joined to God the more we are united among ourselves because the Spirit of God unites and the spirit of evil divides.”
Pope Francis said the Roman Curia “is called to improve (better) itself always and to grow in communion, holiness and wisdom so as to be able to fully realize its mission,” but like every other body it too “ is exposed to disease, malfunctioning, infirmity.”
He then listed 15 “probable diseases” (or illnesses) that “are habitual in our life in the Curia” and “weaken our service to the Lord.” This catalogue of 15 “will help us prepare for Confession,” he said. The following is a slightly shortened version of the 15.
[N.B. The pope used the word “malattia,” and I have usually translated it as “disease” though sometimes as “illness.”]
1. “The disease of feeling oneself ‘immortal,’ ‘immune’ or even ‘indispensable,' ignoring the necessary and habitual controls”
He said, “a Curia that is not ‘self-critical,’ that does not update itself, that does not seek to improve itself, is a sick body.” He described it as “the disease of the foolish rich man in the Gospel who thought that he could live forever (Luke 12, 13-21), and of those who transform themselves into ‘owners’ (‘proprietors’) and feel themselves superior to all and not at the service of all.” This disease, he said, “often derives from the pathology of power, of the ‘complex of the Elect,” of the narcissism that passionately guards one’s own image and does not see the image of God impressed on the face of the others, especially of the weakest and most needy.” The “antidote to this epidemic is the grace to feel ourselves as sinners and to say with one’s whole heart, 'We are useless servants. We have done only what we had to do'” (Luke 17, 10).
2. “The disease of ‘marthalism’ (Martha), of excessive doing (activity)”
Francis described this as the disease of “those that emerge themselves in work, ignoring, inevitably, ‘the better part’: the sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10, 38-42).” For this reason, he said, Jesus called his disciples ‘to rest a little’ (Mark 6.31) because “to overlook the needed rest brings stress and agitation. The time for rest, for the one who has completed his mission, is necessary, a duty, and should be lived seriously.”
3. “The disease of mental and spiritual ‘petrification’”
Pope Francis sees this disease in “those who possess a heart of stone and a ‘hard shoulder’ (Acts 7, 51-60)” and in “those who, on the road, lose inner serenity, vivacity and audacity and hide themselves under the files (dossiers) becoming ‘machines of paperwork,’ and not ‘men of God.’” He said “It is dangerous to lose the human sensitivity that is necessary to make us cry with those that cry and rejoice with those that rejoice! It is the disease of those that lost ‘the sentiments of Jesus’ (Philippians 2, 5-11)” But to be Christian, he said, means “to have the same sentiments that were in Christ Jesus, sentiments of humility and giving, of detachment and generosity.”
4. “The disease of excessive planning and functionalism”
Pope Francis said this disease is seen “when the apostle believes that by making a perfect plan things will progress effectively" he becomes “an accountant or commercialist.” Certainly, “it is necessary to prepare everything well but without every falling into the temptation of wishing to close and pilot the freedom of the Holy Spirit that always remains greater and more generous than any human planning.” He said one falls into this disease because “it is always easier and more comfortable to settle in one’s own static and unchanged positions" but “the Church shows itself faithful to the Holy Spirit in the measure in which it does not have the pretense to regulate and to domesticate the Spirit (who) is freshness, fantasy, newness.”
5. “The disease of bad coordination”
Pope Francis said the disease is evident “when the members lose communion among themselves and the body loses its functional harmony and its temperance becoming an orchestra that produces noise because its members do not collaborate and do not live the spirit of communion and of the team. When the foot says to the arm, “I do not need you,” or the hand says to the head, “I command,” thus causing unease and scandal.”
6. “The disease of spiritual Alzheimer’s”
Francis said this diseases comes when one forgets “the history of Salvation” and one’s personal history with the Lord, one’s “first love.” Here “one is dealing with a progressive decline of the spiritual faculties” over time “causes grave handicaps to the person, making him become incapable of doing any activity autonomously, living a state of absolute dependence on his often imaginary points of view.” He said, “We see it in those who have lost the memory of their encounter with the Lord…in those who depend completely on their ‘present,’ on their passions, capriciousness, manias; on those that construct around themselves walls and habits, becoming ever more slaves of idols that they have sculpted with their own hands.”
7. “The disease of rivalry and vainglory”
Francis sees this disease “when the appearance, the colors of the clothes and the insignia of honors become the primary object of life, forgetting the words of St. Paul, “do not anything for rivalry or vainglory, but each one of you, with all humility, consider the others as superior to oneself. Each one seeks not his own interest but that of the others.'" He said this is the disease that brings us “to be false men and women and to live a false ‘mysticism’ and a false ‘quietism.’"
8. “The disease of existential schizophrenia”
Pope Francis calls this “the disease of those that live a double life, the fruit of hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and of the progressive spiritual emptiness that degrees or academic titles cannot fill.” He said it’s a disease “that often hits those who abandon the pastoral service, and limit themselves to bureaucratic doings, thus losing the contact with reality, with concrete people. They create in this way a parallel world, where they put aside all that they have severely taught to other and begin to live a hidden and often dissolute life.” Here, he said, “Conversion is very urgent and indispensable.”
9. “The disease of backbiting, murmuring and gossip”
Pope Francis admits he has spoken many times about this disease “but never enough.” He described it as “a grave disease that begins simply, perhaps by just making a couple of gossips, but then it takes charge of the person making him become a 'sower of lies' (like Satan), and in many cases ‘cold blooded murder’ of the fame of their colleagues and fellow brothers.” He called it “the disease of vile persons that not having the courage to speak directly (to the face) speak behind the back.” He told the Roman Curia, “Let us guard ourselves against the terrorism of gossip!"
10. “The disease of deifying the chiefs”
Pope Francis called this “the disease of those who court their Superiors, hoping to obtain their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and of opportunism, they honor persons and not God. They are persons who live their service only thinking of what they can obtain and not what they can give.” He described them as mischievous (‘meschine’), unhappy persons and inspired only by their own fatal egoism. But he added, “this disease can also strike the Superiors when they only court some collaborators so as to obtain their submission, loyalty and psychological dependence” and “the final result is a true complicity.”
11. “The disease of indifference to others”
Pope Francis said one has this disease “when each one thinks only of himself and loses sincerity and the warmth of human relations” or “when the most expert one does not put his knowledge at the service of the less expert colleagues,” and “when one lives with the knowledge of something and keeps it for himself instead of positively sharing it with the others.” Those have this disease too “when out of jealousy or miserliness (‘scaltrezza’) one finds joy in seeing the other fall, instead of helping him to get up and encourage him.”
12. “The disease of funeral faces”
Pope Francis said this is the disease of “the brusque persons (‘burbure e arcigne’), who hold that to be serious one has to paint one’s face with melancholy, severity and treat others – especially those considered inferior – with rigidity, hardness and arrogance.” In reality, he said, “‘the theatrical severity’ and ‘the sterile pessimism’ are often symptoms of fear and of insecurity of self.” The apostle, on the other hand, “must strive to make himself a courteous, serene, enthusiastic and happy person that transmits joy where he is. A heart full of God is a happy heart that irradiates and makes contagious with joy all those that are around him.”
13. “The disease of accumulating”
Pope Francis said we see this “when the apostle seeks to fill the existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material things, not out of necessity, but only to feel secure.” He reminded everybody that “‘the (burial) shroud has no pockets’ and all our earthly treasures – even if they are gifts – can never fill that emptiness.” He said the Lord tells them, “Do you not know that you are unhappy, miserable, poor, blind and naked…. Be zealous therefore and be converted.”
14. “The disease of closed circles”
Francis said this disease is found “where the belonging to a small group becomes stronger than that to the Body and, in some situations, to Christ himself.” It always begins with good intentions but with the passing of time “it enslaves the members becoming ‘a cancer’ that threatens the harmony of the Body and causes much evil—scandals—especially to our smaller brothers. The self-destruction or ‘the friendly-fire’ of the fellow militants is the most insidious danger. It’s the evil that strikes from within and as Christ says 'every kingdom divided in itself falls in ruins.'”
15. “The disease of worldly gain, of exhibitionism”
Francis sees this disease “when the apostle transforms his service into power, and his power in merchandise to obtain worldly gain or more powers. It’s the disease of persons that insatiably seek to multiply powers and for this purpose are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting the others, even on newspapers and reviews. Naturally to exhibit themselves and to show themselves more capable than others.” He said this disease “does much evil to the body because it brings persons to justify whatever means so as to reach that goal, often in the name of justice and transparency!”
Pope Francis went onto say that “these diseases and these temptations are naturally a danger for every Christian, and for every curia, community, congregation, parish, ecclesial movement and so on, and they can strike both at the individual and the community level.”
He said “It is necessary to clarify that it is only the Holy Spirit – the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ” that “can heal every infirmity” and “sustain every sincere effort at purification and every good wish of conversion.” It is the Holy Spirit “that enables us to understand that every member participates in the sanctification of the body and in its weakening,” and “the promoter of harmony,” he said.
He told his curial audience that “healing is also the fruit of awareness of the disease and of the personal and communitarian decision to be cured by supporting patiently and with perseverance the cure.”
Calling the members of the curia, “dear brothers,” the pope went onto tell them that he had once read that “priests are like airplanes, they make news when they fall, but there are many that fly. Many criticize but few pray for them.” It’s a nice phrase, but it is also very true, he said, because “it outlines the importance and delicacy of our priestly service and how much evil one priest who ‘falls’ can cause to the whole body of the Church."
He concluded by encouraging each of them to ask the Blessed Virgin, “the mother of the Son of God and of the Church, to heal the wounds of sin that each one bears in his heart and to sustain the Church and the Curia so that it be healthy and healing, holy and sanctifying, to the glory of her Son and for our salvation and that of the entire world.”