Pope Francis struck a very different tone this year in his Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, compared to last year when he lambasted 15 “curial diseases.” He did so by praising and giving encouragement to the loyal and devoted persons working there, and urged them to cultivate “the needed virtues” that will enable them to give faithful service to the church and the Successor of Peter. He listed 24 such virtues which, taken together, offer a profile of the ideal curial official.
He gave them cause for joy when he affirmed that “it would a great injustice not to express heartfelt gratitude and rightful encouragement to all those good and honest men and women in the Curia who work with dedication, devotion, fidelity and professionalism, offering to the church and the Successor of Peter the assurance of their solidarity and obedience, as well as their constant prayers.”
Since becoming pope, he has hit hard several times at what he perceives as the failings of his collaborators in the Roman Curia, the papal civil service, and last year he really shook them, and upset not a few, by presenting—in the form of an examination of conscience—“a catalogue of curial diseases” and temptations, which he said they have to confront because these risk undermining their faithful service to the church and to the pope. He listed 15 “diseases” then, but today he offered further light on that speech by explaining that these diseases “could affect any Christian, curia, community, congregation, parish or ecclesial movement.” They are, he said, “diseases which call for prevention, vigilance, care and, sadly, in some cases, painful and prolonged interventions.”
In today’s speech he recalled that in actual fact “some of those diseases had manifested themselves in the course of this year, causing not a little pain to the whole body and wounding many souls.” This was an allusion to such things as the financial scandals that made headline news and also resulted in two books in what has become known as Vatileaks 2, the self-outing as homosexual of a mid-ranking official of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the way a number of cardinals had conducted themselves in relation to the Synod on the Family and the pope’s direction of that assembly.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, speaking on behalf of the many cardinals, bishops and other Vatican officials present in the Sala Clementina, welcomed the pope when he came to give the traditional Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia. Francis began by excusing himself for having to deliver his talk sitting down, he explained that he was suffering a little from influenza. Nevertheless he appeared in good form as he read his more than half-hour speech, he joked and said that maybe after last year's catalogue of "curial diseases" he should come up this year with "Curial antibiotics" to treat them. At the end of his talk, he went around to greet each one of the cardinals present.
In his speech— which drew much applause at the end—he sought to encourage all those “good and honest” persons working in the Vatican by affirming that “the diseases and even scandals cannot obscure the efficiency of the services rendered to the pope and to the entire church by the Roman Curia, with great effort, responsibility, commitment and dedication, and this is a real source of consolation.”
As he has often done in past speeches, the Jesuit pope again drew on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and in particular on the part devoted to “the discernment of spirits” and explained to his collaborators that the scandals and illnesses were due to “the evil spirit” which tries to impede the good work being done and the reform process that is under way in the Roman Curia and the church. But he stated categorically that there would be no let-up: “The reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve, since ecclesia semper reformanda“ (the church must always be reformed).
Francis is well aware that there is resistance to his reforms within the curia. He alluded to this, too, when he told them that “the cases of resistance, difficulties and failures on the part of individuals and ministers are so many lessons and opportunities for growth, and never for discouragement. They are opportunities for returning to the essentials, which means being ever more conscious of ourselves, of God and our neighbors, of the sensus ecclesiae (sense of the church) and the sensus fidei (sense of faith).”
From the beginning of his pontificate in March 2013, Pope Francis set out to reform the minds and hearts of those working in the Roman Curia because he is convinced that without a radical spiritual and cultural change here the organizational restructuring that is under way in the Vatican will not bear real fruit.
He took another significant step along that path of spiritual reform today by providing “a catalogue of the needed virtues”—24 in all—which he sees as essential qualities or modes of behavior for those who work in the Roman Curia. He presented it as “a ‘return to the essentials’ in this Holy Year of Mercy,” which, he said, “represents for all of us a pressing summons to gratitude, conversion, renewal, penance and reconciliation.”
“Christmas is truly the feast of God’s infinite mercy,” Francis stated, and in preparation for this feast and in the context of the Jubilee Year, he told his distinguished audience that he wished “to present a practical aid for fruitfully experiencing this season of grace.” It is, he said, a “catalogue of needed virtues” for those who serve in the Curia and for all those who would like to make their consecration or service to the Church more fruitful.
He presented them in the form of “an acrostic analysis of the word Misericordia (Mercy) with the aim of having it serve as our guide and beacon,” and he recalled that the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci used similar memory techniques in China.
In actual fact, Francis links each of the twelve letters of this word to two virtues, thereby offering a catalogue of 24 virtues: missionary and pastoral spirit; idoneity (suitability) and sagacity; spirituality and humanity; example and fidelity; reasonableness and gentleness; innocuousness and determination; charity and truth; openness and maturity; respectfulness and humility; diligence and attentiveness; intrepidness and alertness; accountability and sobriety.
He commented on each virtue, and urged the curial officials to cultivate and develop these essential qualities so that they may be faithful and good servants in the Roman Curia and in the universal church.
Thus, for example, he insisted yet again that “spirituality is the backbone of all service in the church and in the Christian life. It is what nourishes all our activity, sustaining and protecting it from human frailty and daily temptation.” Humanity, on the other hand, “is what embodies the truthfulness of our faith” and “is what makes us different from machines and robots which feel nothing and are never moved. Once we find it hard to weep seriously or to laugh heartily, we have begun our decline and the process of turning from ‘humans’ into something else. Humanity is knowing how to show tenderness and fidelity and courtesy to all.” Francis said these two qualities need “to be activated fully, attained completely and demonstrated daily.”
A second set of virtues related to “example and fidelity.” These would seem particularly pertinent given what has happened during the pontificate of Benedict XVI and in these past three years too. Recalling that Paul VI in 1963 told the Roman Curia that it is called “to set an example,” Francis said this entails “avoiding scandals which harm souls and impair the credibility of our witness.” He reminded everyone of Jesus’ words: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes” (Mt 18:6-7).
As for fidelity, Francis explained that this is related “to our consecration, to our vocation, always mindful of the words of Christ: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Lk 16:10).
Francis called on those who work in the Roman Curia to show “respectfulness and humility” at all times, and he reminded them that “Humility is the virtue of the saints and those godly persons who become all the more important as they come to realize that they are nothing, and can do nothing, apart from God’s grace.”
His comment on another set of virtues—“diligence and attentiveness”—was particularly significant. He asked them: What good would it do to open all the Holy Doors of all the basilicas in the world if the doors of our own heart are closed to love, if our hands are closed to giving, if our homes are closed to hospitality and our churches to welcome and acceptance?
Referring to attentiveness, he said this entails “concern for the little things, for doing our best and never yielding to our vices and failings.” In this context he reminded them of the words of Saint Vincent de Paul's prayer: “Lord, help me to be always aware of those around me, those who are worried or dismayed, those suffering in silence, and those who feel alone and abandoned.”
In the 12th and final set of virtues, Francis urged his collaborators in the Roman Curia to develop a sense of “accountability and sobriety.” He put it this way: “sobriety is seeing the world through God’s eyes and from the side of the poor. Sobriety is a style of life which points to the primacy of others as a hierarchical principle and is shown in a life of concern and service towards others. The sober person is consistent and straightforward in all things, because he or she can reduce, recover, recycle, repair and live a life of moderation.”
After presenting the 24 “needed virtues,” Francis moved to the broader picture by reminding everyone that “mercy is no fleeting sentiment, but rather the synthesis of the joyful good news, a choice and decision on the part of all who desire to put on the ‘Heart of Jesus’ and to be serious followers of the Lord who has asked us to “be merciful even as your heavenly Father is merciful.”
He prayed that all present “may let mercy guide our steps, inspire our reforms and enlighten our decisions. May it be the basis of all our efforts. May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back. May it also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater plan of salvation and his majestic and mysterious working.”
Francis concluded by reading a “magnificent prayer,” which, he said, is “commonly attributed to Blessed Oscar Arnulfo Romero” but in actual fact was “pronounced for the first time by Cardinal John Dearden,” the archbishop of Detroit.
I quote here the second part of that prayer which, to my mind, captures very well what Pope Francis is doing. It reads as follows:
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.