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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 22, 2022
Pope Francis greets a child at the end of a Christmas audience with Vatican employees Dec. 22, 2022, in the Vatican audience hall. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis’ Christmas greetings to the officials of the church’s central administration have become one of the most closely watched events of the Vatican calendar. His message to the Roman Curia has often been challenging, even provocative, and this year’s address was no exception. He compared these officials to “the elder brother” in the parable of the prodigal son and called on them to “be converted.”

For his 10 years as pope, Francis has observed closely how the officials of the Roman Curia—cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, consecrated men and women, and lay people—think, work and live, and he has reached some conclusions. Today, after walking in to applause from some 200 of them in the Vatican’s Hall of Benedictions, he expressed some of his concerns regarding their spiritual welfare.

The pope is aware that there is some unease and stress among the officials following his March 19 reform of the Roman Curia, “Praedicate Evangelium,” so he told them: “We can be unhappy even while formally remaining faithful to our duties, like the elder son of the merciful father. For those who set out and go astray, it is easy to recognize how far they have wandered; for those who remain at home, it is not easy to appreciate the hell they are living in, convinced that they are mere victims, treated unjustly by constituted authority and, in the last analysis, by God himself.”

Pope Francis’ Christmas greetings to the officials of the church’s central administration have become one of the most closely watched events of the Vatican calendar.

On the other hand, Francis said, those working in the Roman Curia “could easily fall into the temptation of thinking we are safe, better than others, no longer in need of conversion.”

“Yet,” he said, “we are in greater danger than all others because we are beset by the ‘elegant demon,’ who does not make a loud entrance but comes with flowers in his hand.”

Here he appeared to be alluding to the sophisticated ways by which Vatican officials can be tempted and co-opted onto questionable paths and how such attempts can undermine their ministry and service to the successor of Peter and to the church.

He told them:

It is not enough to condemn evil, including the evil that quietly lurks among us. We need to respond by choosing to be converted. Mere condemnation can give the illusion that we have solved the problem, whereas what really counts is making the changes that will ensure that we no longer allow ourselves to be imprisoned by evil ways of thinking, which are often those of this world.

He urged them to be vigilant, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel.

He recalled the example Jesus gave:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, [the spirit] finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Lk 11:24-26).

Pope Francis said:

Our initial conversion follows a certain pattern: The evil that we acknowledge and try to uproot from our lives does indeed leave us, but we would be naïve to think that it will long be gone. In short order, it comes back under a new guise. Before, it appeared rough and violent, now it shows up as elegant and refined. We need to realize that and once again to unmask it. That is how these “elegant demons” are: They enter smoothly, without our even being conscious of them. Only the daily practice of the examination of conscience can enable us to be aware of them.

Aware that he was not mincing his words and may even be causing upset to some, Pope Francis continued:

If there are times when I say things that might sound harsh and pointed, it is not because I don’t believe in the value of kindness and persuasion. Rather, it is because it is good to keep our caresses for the weary and the oppressed, and to have the courage to “afflict the comfortable,” as the Servant of God Don Tonino Bello liked to say.

Pope Francis repeated his call to conversion and said, “The worst thing that could happen to us is to think that we are no longer in need of conversion, either as individuals or as a community.”

He told his Vatican audience: “To be converted is to learn ever anew how to take the Gospel message seriously and to put it into practice in our lives. It is not simply about avoiding evil but doing all the good that we can. Where the Gospel is concerned, we are always like children needing to learn. The illusion that we have learned everything makes us fall into spiritual pride.”

“We are in greater danger than all others because we are beset by the ‘elegant demon,’ who does not make a loud entrance but comes with flowers in his hand.”

The 86-year-old pope recalled that the Second Vatican Council was opened 60 years ago and described it as “a great moment of conversion for the entire church.”

“The conversion that the council sparked was an effort to understand the Gospel more fully and to make it relevant, living and effective in our time,” he said.

“The opposite of conversion is ‘immobility,’ the secret belief that we have nothing else to learn from the Gospel,” Francis said. “This is the error of trying to crystallize the message of Jesus in a single, perennially valid form. Instead, its form must be capable of constantly changing, so that its substance can remain constantly the same…. To preserve means to keep alive and not to imprison the message of Christ.”

Not surprisingly given his daily attention to the war in Ukraine, now in its 302nd day, Pope Francis devoted the last part of his talk to the subject of peace. Referring to that war and other conflicts, he said, “Never as at this time have we felt so great a desire for peace.”

He again denounced “war and violence” as “always a catastrophe” and emphasized that “religion must not lend itself to fueling conflicts. The Gospel is always a Gospel of peace, and in the name of no God can one declare a war to be ‘holy.’”

“The culture of peace is not built up solely between peoples and nations,” the pope said. “It begins in the heart of every one of us.” Indeed, “we can and must make our own contribution to peace by striving to uproot from our hearts all hatred and resentment towards the brothers and sisters with whom we live.” He said, “For every war to end, forgiveness is required. Otherwise, justice becomes vengeance, and love is seen only as a form of weakness.”

The pope reminded them that “besides the violence of arms, there is also verbal violence, psychological violence, the violence of the abuse of power, the hidden violence of gossip.”

Aware that peace does not always reign in relations between people even in the Roman Curia, Francis reminded these officials that, as St. Paul said, “kindliness, mercy and forgiveness” are the way to build peace.

“Kindliness means always choosing goodness in our way of relating with one another,” he said. The pope reminded them that “besides the violence of arms, there is also verbal violence, psychological violence, the violence of the abuse of power, the hidden violence of gossip.” He urged them, “in the presence of the Prince of Peace… let us lay aside all weapons of every kind. May none of us profit from his or her position and role in order to demean others.”

He called on them, too, to show mercy which means “accepting the fact that others also have their limits.”

“A church that is pure and for the pure is only a return to the heresy of Catharism,” the pope said. “Were that the case, the Gospel and the Bible as a whole would not have told us of limitations and shortcomings of many of those whom today we acknowledge as saints.”

Finally, he encouraged them to show forgiveness, which “means always giving others a second chance, in the realization that we become saints by fits and starts.”

Pope Francis concluded with these words: “God became a child, and that child, once grown, let himself be nailed on a cross. There is nothing weaker than one who is crucified, yet that weakness became the demonstration of God’s supreme power. In forgiveness, God’s power is always at work.”

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