In his closely watched pre-Christmas address to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis again spoke about its reform and focused on the Curia’s crucially important relationship ad extra: to the world outside the Vatican City State. This was his fourth consecutive talk on the Roman Curia; the first three were on the inner life of the Curia. This year he focused on the Curia’s relation to the external world.
Francis emphasized that the Curia must act out of of service, or “diaconal primacy” as he called it, not only to the Petrine ministry (the papacy) but also to the outside world, as it seeks to follow in the footsteps of Christ who made himself a slave for our sakes.
Addressing the cardinals and senior officials of the Roman Curia, who were seated on either side in front of him, in the Sala Clementina, Francis unpacked this concept of “diaconal primacy” in some detail.
At the same time, he acknowledged that still today a minority in the Curia do not see things in this “diaconal” light. He mentioned three such categories of people.
Pope Francis has long recognized that the reform of the Roman Curia, which he began in 2013, is a difficult task.
First, those who lose contact with the real world of faith and life and join in the “unbalanced and degenerate logic of conspiracies or of the small circles that in reality represent—notwithstanding all their justifications and good intentions—a cancer that leads to self-referentiality, that infiltrates itself into the ecclesiastical organisms as such, and in particular into the persons that work there.” When this happens, he said, the joy of the Gospel “is lost.”
He described the second group as “the betrayers of trust and the profiteers of the motherhood of the church.” These are “persons who have been carefully chosen to give greater vigor to the [ecclesial] body and to the reform but, not understanding the high levels of their responsibilities, allow themselves to be corrupted by ambition or vain glory, and when they are delicately removed [from those positions] they erroneously declare themselves to be martyrs of the system, of ‘the pope who is not informed,’ of ‘the old guard,’ instead of reciting the mea culpa [‘through my fault’].”
He noted, moreover, that “alongside” these two groups there are others “still working” in the Roman Curia “to whom all the time is given to take up the right path, in the hope that they will find in the patience of the church an opportunity for converting themselves and not for taking profit.”
“A Curia closed in on itself would betray the purpose of its existence and would fall into self-referentiality, condemning itself to self-destruction.”
The pope emphasized, however, that all these people are but a small minority in the Roman Curia where “the overwhelming majority of faithful persons who work there [do so] with praiseworthy commitment, fidelity, competence, dedication and much holiness.”
In his talk, he insisted that there must be “a relation of filial obedience for the service of the holy people of God” and “this must exist among all those who work in the Roman Curia, from the heads of the dicasteries to the superiors, the officials and everyone.”
Pope Francis has long recognized that the reform of the Roman Curia, which he began at the request of the conclave in the summer of 2013, is a difficult task. He acknowledged as much in his speech when he quoted with appreciation the words of Monsignor Frédéric François Xavier De Mérode, an 18th century Belgian statesman and prelate who was very close to Pius IX. He had once remarked: “To do reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx of Egypt with a toothbrush.”
In other words, Francis said, the reform underway requires “much patience, dedication and delicacy” to reach the goal because the Curia is “an ancient, complex, venerable institution composed of people from different cultures, languages and mental constructs and which, structurally...is bound to the primatial function of the Bishop of Rome in the church, that is to the ‘sacred’ office willed by Christ the Lord for the good of the entire body of the church.”
He emphasized that “the universality of the service of the Curia comes from and flows from the catholicity of the Petrine ministry.” Indeed, he said, “a Curia closed in on itself would betray the purpose of its existence and would fall into self-referentiality, condemning itself to self-destruction.”
The pope emphasized, however, that all these people are but a small minority in the Roman Curia.
Francis asserted that the Roman Curia, ex natura, “is projected outwards in so far as it is linked to the Petrine ministry” and said the “diaconal attitude” should be the hallmark of all those working there because “they are acting in the name and with the authority of the Supreme Pontiff” and carry out their work “for the good and the service of the churches.”
He said the dicasteries of the Roman Curia are called to be in the church like “faithful and sensitive antennae for transmitting and receiving.”
The pope also described how the names of the different dicasteries show the realities for which they must work and said they are “fundamental and important actions for the whole church and the entire world.” But given that the Curia’s work is “truly extensive,” Francis said he would only focus today on the Curia’s outreach in five areas.
1. The nations of the world. Francis said Vatican diplomacy “plays a fundamental role” in “the constant search to make the Holy See a builder of bridges, of peace and of dialogue among the nations,” working for the service of humanity “with outstretched hand and open door,” committed “to listen, to understand, to help, to intervene promptly and respectively in whatever situation to bring the distances closer and to weave trust.” On the world scene it seeks to collaborate with persons and nations of good will to restate the importance of safeguarding our common home from “every destructive egoism”; to affirm that wars only bring death and destruction; to draw on past teachings that can help us live better in the present and future. He presented his meetings with heads of states and and his foreign visits as a means to this end.
‘A faith that is only intellectual or tepid remains only a proposal of faith.’
2. Local churches.Next, Pope Francis highlighted “the primary importance” of the relation of the Curia to the local churches which, he insisted, must be “based on collaboration, trust and never on superiority or adversity.” He said the Curia “has not only the bishop of Rome as its point of reference, and from whom it draws authority, but also the particular churches and their pastors worldwide for whose good it works and acts.” In this context, he described the ad limina visits as “a great opportunity for encounter, dialogue and mutual enrichment” and mentioned how he has changed the style of these visits. He expressed his great joy that bishops have told him about the positive reception they received “from all the dicasteries,” and he thanked them for this. He emphasized the importance of the involvement of the Curia, the bishops and the whole church in preparing for the upcoming October 2018 synod of bishops on “young people, the faith and vocational discernment.”
3. Eastern churches.Francis spoke about the Curia’s relation to the Eastern-rite Catholic churches and said the unity and communion that dominate this relation are “a concrete example of the richness in diversity for the whole church.” He spoke about the need to revisit the delicate question of the election of new bishops, and praised “the heroic witness” of these churches, often given through martyrdom.
4. Ecumenical dialogue. Francis next described the role of the Curia in the ecumenical dialogue which, after Vatican II, is a journey that is “irreversible, there is no going back.” He emphasized that “unity is realized by walking together, meeting each other as brothers, praying together, collaborating together in announcing the Gospel and in the service of the least ones.”
He envisaged that “the theological and ecclesiological divergences which still divide Christians will be resolved only along this way. He said “the Roman Curia works in the ecumenical field to untie the knots of incomprehension and hostility, and to contrast prejudices and the fear of the other that have prevented us from seeing the richness of...diversity.” He spoke of his joy at meeting the popes, patriarchs and leaders of the other churches and communities.
5. Interfaith relations. Lastly, he addressed the Roman Curia’s relationship with Judaism, Islam and the other religions. Francis emphasized the necessity of dialogue, as called for by Vatican II “because the only alternative to dialogue is the incivility of the clash.” He sees the proof of this dialogue when he meets with religious authorities on foreign trips and in the Vatican.
Francis concluded his long talk by telling the curial cardinals and officials that “a faith that is only intellectual or tepid remains only a proposal of faith.”
He continued: “[T]hat [faith] could be realized when it arrives to involving our heart, soul, spirit and whole existence, when it permits God to be born and reborn in the stable of our heart, when we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where lies the Son of God, not among the kings and luxury but among the poor and humble.”
At the end of his talk, Francis greeted each of those present individually, and gave them a gift of two books.