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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 21, 2019
Pope Francis delivers his blessing during his annual audience to give Christmas greetings to members of the Roman Curia at the Vatican on Dec. 21. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis delivers his blessing during his annual audience to give Christmas greetings to members of the Roman Curia at the Vatican on Dec. 21. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Pope Francis’ eve-of-Christmas talk to the Roman Curia was different in tone this year. It was challenging but not as hard-hitting as in previous years, except when he warned against “the ever-present temptation to rigidity.” In it, he sought to encourage and reassure, even as he spoke about a reform that started in mid-2013, has encountered opposition, and is expected to be completed in 2020 (though he did not announce this).

He stated unambiguously in his talk that change and reform is in the very nature of a church that is called “to be missionary,” in a world that is experiencing “a change of epoch.”

The pope situated the ongoing reform of the curia in this perspective and significantly quoted from St. John Henry Newman, whom he canonized this year, and from the renowned Italian Jesuit cardinal and biblical scholar Carlo Maria Martini in support of the ever-present need for change and reform in the church. He also pointed to the mentality that opposes such change by citing the Italian novelist Giuseppe Tomasi de Lamedusa, who in his famous book Il Gattopardo (“The Leopard”) wrote, “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Pope Francis stated unambiguously that change and reform is in the very nature of a church that is called “to be missionary.”

It was Francis’ seventh Christmas address to the cardinals, bishops and ranking officials of the Roman Curia since his election in March 2013, and he delivered it in the 16th-century Clementine Hall of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, decorated with magnificent Renaissance frescoes.

He began by thanking the 92-year-old Cardinal Angelo Sodano of Italy, dean of the College of Cardinals, for his almost 15 years of service in this role. The cardinal, who had greeted him on behalf of the college, has decided to step down as dean. Francis accepted his resignation and urged the cardinal-bishops who will elect his successor to choose one who can do the job full-time.

Then, commenting on the tradition of exchanging Christmas greetings, Francis, quoting a Coptic mystic, Matta El-Meskin, said, “It is rooted in the contemplation of the love of God revealed at Christmas, in which the birth of Christ is the strongest and most eloquent witness of how much God loves humankind.” He reminded his audience that “Jesus does not ask us to love him as a response to his love for us, rather he asks us to love one another with his own love. He asks us to be like him, because he has become like us.”

He recalled that St. John Henry Newman said, “Christmas should find us always more like him, who at this time became a child for love of us. Every Christmas should find us more simple, more humble, more saintly, more charitable, more resigned, more happy, more full of God.”

Francis also quoted Newman’s famous saying, “Here on earth to live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.” Obviously, he said, Newman “is not speaking about seeking change for change’s sake, or to follow the fashion, but rather to have the conviction that development and growth are the characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the center there is the stability of God.”

He emphasized that “for Newman, ‘change’ is ‘conversion,’—that is, an interior transformation” and said, “the Christian life, in reality, is a journey, a pilgrimage. The Biblical story is all a journey, marked by starts and restarts. So, too, it was for Abraham, and for those who more than 2,000 years ago in Galilee set out to follow Jesus… Since then, the people of God—the history of the church—is always marked by departures, moves, changes. The journey, obviously, is not purely geographical, but above all symbolic: It’s an invitation to discover the movement of the heart that, paradoxically, needs to start in order to remain, to change so as to be able to be faithful.”

Pope Francis: one can “live change by limiting oneself to putting on new clothes but in fact remaining as one was before.”

Pope Francis continued, “All this has a particular relevance for our time, because what we are living through is not simply an epoch of changes but a change of epoch.” He said that one can “live change by limiting oneself to putting on new clothes but in fact remaining as one was before.” In this context, he cited “the enigmatic expression” in Il Gattopardo: “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same.”

Francis told his audience, which included women religious and laypeople as well as clerics, that “the healthy attitude is that of allowing oneself to be interrogated by the challenges of the present time and of receiving them with the virtues of discernment, boldness (parrhesia), and patient endurance (hypomone).” In this way, he said, “change takes on a totally different aspect…. It becomes something more human, more Christian.”

He then spoke about the reform of the Roman Curia from a perspective of “change that is founded mainly on fidelity to the deposit of faith and to tradition.”

He made clear that his reform of the Curia “never had the presumption of being done as if nothing existed before. On the contrary, it has aimed to valorize all that is good that has been done in the complex history of the church.” But, he said, “to appeal to memory does not mean to anchor oneself in self-conservation…. Memory is not static, it is dynamic. By nature, it implies movement. Tradition is not static, it is dynamic. It is the guarantee of the future, not the custodian of ashes.”

Francis recalled that in his 2016 Christmas talk he spoke about “the criteria” that inspire the reform, and in 2017 he mentioned some of its organizational changes, including the creation of a third section of the Secretariat of State—“which is working well”—and the new approach to the periodic (“ad limina”) visits by bishops’ conferences.

“Tradition is not static, it is dynamic. It is the guarantee of the future, not the custodian of ashes.”

Today, he said he wished to focus on other Vatican offices starting from “the heart of the reform”—namely, “evangelization,” which “is the very reason for the church’s existence.” He reminded them that “the reform of structures” requires a “pastoral conversion” that makes them “ever more missionary.” For this reason and in line with the Second Vatican Council, he said he decided that the Apostolic Constitution on the reform be called “Predicate evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”).

From that perspective, he recalled that the important congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith (founded in 1542) and for the Evangelization of Peoples (founded in 1622) were established when it was easier to distinguish between “a Christian world on the one side and a world yet to be evangelized on the other.” But, he remarked, “this situation no longer exists” because “the populations who have not yet received the Gospel are no longer in non-Western continents, they live everywhere, and especially in the vast urban concentrations that require a special pastoral [approach].” He noted that five European countries (without naming them) that gave many missionaries to the church in the last century struggle to provide priests even to serve their own faithful today.

“The populations who have not yet received the Gospel are no longer in non-Western continents, they live everywhere."

Francis said the Christian world “no longer exists” and the Christian faith— especially in Europe, but also in much of the West—is no longer “a basis for a common living together. Indeed it is often denied, derided, marginalized and ridiculed.” He said Benedict XVI understood this and in 2010 established the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization of these lands.

Francis said this reality “necessarily demands changes” not only from these two older congregations, but also from all Roman Curia offices.

This is true, too, in the field of communications, he said. He noted that a large share of humanity is now “living in a widespread digital culture that has impacted profoundly on our notion of time and space, on our perception of self, of the other, and of the world.”

He noted that the Dicastery for Communication has incorporated and sought to harmonize what were nine separate units: the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the Holy See’s press office, the Vatican printing and publishing houses, L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio and Vatican Television, the Vatican Internet Service and the Vatican Photographic Service.

Today’s culture, Francis said, requires “multimedia forms” and “a new way of conceiving, thinking and realizing.” This involves “cultural change, an institutional conversion” and working in synergy.

Much of this is also true of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development,” which came into existence in 2017, Francis said. It incorporated four pontifical councils: Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Pastoral Care of Migrants and Health Workers, and its central purpose is “to promote the integral development of people in the light of the Gospel” by working for justice, peace and the safeguarding of creation. He recalled that it seeks to serve the weakest and most marginalized people, and especially those forced to be migrants “who today represent a cry in the desert of our humanity.” He said the church is called to remind everyone that these people are “human beings, our brothers and sisters who today symbolize all the discarded people of our globalized society.” Moreover, it is called “to witness that for God no one is ‘a stranger’ or ‘excluded,’ and that all human beings are “made in the image and likeness of God” and “form part of one human family.”

Francis admitted that it is not easy to deal with all these challenges and reach the right balance, also “because in the tension between a glorious past and a future that is creative and in movement, there is the present in which people need time to mature, and there are historical circumstances to be managed daily…and juridical and institutional questions to be resolved, without magic formulas or short cuts.”

Furthermore, he said, there is “the dimension of human error, which has to be taken into consideration because it is a part of human history.” Faced with this “difficult historical process,” Francis said, “there is the temptation to retreat back to the past because it is more reassuring, known and secure, and less conflictual,” but “this too is part of the process and risk of bringing about significant changes.”

Pope Francis again warned against “the temptation of assuming an attitude of rigidity.” This “is a very real temptation today,” he said. “It is born of the fear of change and ends by laying down boundaries and obstacles on the terrain of the common good, making them become a minefield of incommunicability and of hate.” He asserted that “behind every rigidity, there lies a derangement or imbalance” and said, “rigidity and imbalance feed off each other in a vicious circle.”

Pope Francis said the Roman Curia “is not a body detached from reality—even though that risk is always present—but it should be conceived and lived in the today of a journey made by women and men in the logic of a change of epoch.” Nor is the Roman Curia “a palace or a wardrobe full of clothes to be worn to justify a change,” he said. On the contrary, “it is a living body, and is so the more it lives the fulness of the Gospel.”

He emphasized the urgent need for change in the church by recalling the words of Cardinal Martini in an interview, shortly before he died on Aug. 31, 2012, “that should interrogate us.” Martini said: “The church has remained 200 years behind the times. Why has it not been shaken up? Are we afraid? Fear instead of courage? Nevertheless, faith is the foundation of the church. Faith, trust, courage…. Only loves conquers tiredness.”

Pope Francis concluded by telling his collaborators in the Roman Curia: “Christmas is the feast of the love of God for us. Divine love inspires, guides, and corrects the change and defeats the human fear of leaving the ‘secure’ and launching out in the ‘mystery’.”

He wished them “Buon Natale!, and then greeted each one individually, and gave them a gift of two books.

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