Pope Francis surprises Vatican officials with frank talk of Roman Curia reform
Pope Francis surprised Vatican officials yet again, when, in his closely watched pre-Christmas greeting, he spoke frankly about the reform of the Roman Curia and the “open,” “hidden” and “malevolent” types of resistance that he is encountering to it.
Addressing the cardinals and senior officials of the Roman Curia gathered in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina, Francis dedicated his speech to the ongoing reform of the Roman Curia which, he said, is being done at the request of the cardinals, per their discussions in the pre-conclave meetings in 2013. He listed the 12 criteria that are guiding this reform and the three “types of resistance” he is encountering. And, by way of response to those who allege that little has been achieved, he highlighted the significant progress already made.
This is the third consecutive year in which the Argentine pope has zoned in forcefully on a central aspect of the life of the Roman Curia, the papal civil service. In 2014, he identified 15 “diseases” or “illnesses” from which curial officials can suffer. In 2015 he offered the antidotes to these ailments by listing “a catalogue of the necessary virtues” that they need to cultivate.
This year Pope Francis framed his talk in terms of the spirituality of the incarnation. Describing Christmas as the feast of “the loving humility of God” that upends human logic, he recalled that “God chose to be born small, because he wished to be loved,” and by being small, fragile, weak, “no one would be ashamed of approaching him, no one would fear him.” Francis said this divine logic scuttles “the worldly logic, the logic of power, of command, the pharisaic, the chance or deterministic logic,” and made clear that this is the logic that should inform the life of everyone in Roman Curia and underpin its reform.
“Reform,” he said, means “conforming” to the good news of the Gospel that must be proclaimed “joyfully and courageously” to everyone, especially to the poor and discarded, and “conforming” to the signs of the times so as to better respond to the needs of women and men today. It also means “conforming” to the ministry of the Successor of Peter and supporting him in this office.
“Since the Curia is not an immobile apparatus,” Francis said, its reform—which has occurred many times over the last century—is “a sign of vivacity, of the church on the move, in pilgrimage and of the living church that always needs to be reformed.” But, he insisted, “reform is not an end in itself but is a process of growth and, above all, of conversion.” Its goal “is not esthetic, to make the Curia look beautiful” or to give it “a face-lift or makeup,” or do “plastic surgery to remove the wrinkles.” Indeed, he declared, “it is not the wrinkles that the church needs to fear, but its stains.”
Francis insisted, however, that the reform “will only be effective” if it is done with “renewed” people, not just “new people.” It is not enough to change personnel; it is necessary “to renew spiritually, humanly and professionally” the members of the Curia. “Without the conversion of persons” and “permanent purification,” there is no reform, he stated.
In the reform process, he said, “it’s normal, even healthy, to encounter difficulties,” and today these have appeared in “different typologies of resistance”: open, hidden and malevolent.
The “open resistances” are “often born of good will and sincere dialog,” he stated. But the “hidden resistances” are “born of frightened or petrified hearts that feed on empty words of spiritualgattopardism of the one who says he is ready for change, but wants everything to remain as before.”
As for the “malevolent resistances,” Francis said these “sprout in distorted minds” and “present themselves when the devil inspires bad intentions (often in ‘lamb’s’ clothing’).” This form of resistance “hides behind justifying and, in many cases, accusatory words, takes refuge for self in traditions, in appearances, in formalities, in the known or in the wish to reduce everything to the personal without distinguishing between the act, the actor and the action.”
Francis was aware that a number of cardinals and curial officials present as he spoke are engaged in such resistance, including Cardinals Burke and Sarah, but he declared “the absence of reaction is a sign of death!” whereas resistance “is a sign that the body is alive.”
Consequently, he said, “the good resistances—and even the less good ones—are necessary and merit to be listened to, received and encouraged to express themselves.”
The Jesuit pope said all this shows that “the reform of the Curia is a delicate process that has to be lived in faithfulness to the essentials.” It has to be conducted with “continuous discernment, evangelical courage, tenacious action, positive silence, firm decisions and much, much, much prayer.” It requires “profound humility, clear farsightedness, with concrete steps forward and—when it is necessary—with steps back.” And it needs to be done “with determined will, vivacious vitality, responsible power, with unconditioned obedience” and “in the first place, by abandoning ourselves to the secure guidance of the Holy Spirit, trusting in his necessary support.”
In the last part of his 45-minute talk, Francis outlined 12 criteria that are guiding the reform process: individuality (personal conversion), pastorality (pastoral conversion), missionary (Christocentrism), rationality, functionality, modernity (aggiornamento), sobriety, subsidiarity, synodality, catholicity, professionality and graduality (discernment). He explained what each one entails.
He reiterated the fundamental need for personal conversion and emphasized the link between the attitude of the person and the community, saying: “one person can bring much good to the whole body, or can damage or make it sick.”
He said the Roman Curia must reflect “the catholicity” of the church and so must recruit its personnel from the entire world, bringing in permanent deacons, as well as lay men and women, not just clerics or consecrated persons. He called for giving value to and affirming “the role of women and of lay persons in the life of the church and their integration into lead roles in the dicasteries (Vatican departments), with special attention to multiculturality.” He insisted, too, on the need for the “ongoing formation” of everyone working in the curia.
He declared that the practice of promoting an individual to remove him from a position (promoveatur ut amoveator) must be “definitely archived,” and denounced it as “a cancer.”
Francis insisted moreover on the need for “rationalization” of the number of curial dicasteries, and highlighted the importance of “coordination” within each office. He underlined the role of the Secretariat of State in coordinating the work of all curial offices, while respecting “subsidarity.”
He concluded by listing the many goals already reached in the reform process, including in the field of Vatican finances and communications, the establishment of two new departments for the service of integral human development and for the laity, the family and life. He recalled, too, the establishment of the commission for the protection of minors; the decrees regarding negligent bishops; and the reform of the process for annulments of marriages.
At the end of his talk, Pope Francis announced that he would give each person present a Christmas present of a book that recalls the talk he gave them in 2014 on the “ills” of the Roman Curia. The book bears the title Tips to Cure the Ills of the Soul; it was written by Rodolfo Acquaviva, S.J., one of the early Superior Generals of the Society of Jesus.