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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 21, 2023
Pope Francis speaks to cardinals and top officials of the Roman Curia in the Vatican's Hall of Blessings Dec. 21, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“Sixty years after the [Second Vatican] Council, we are still debating the division between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives,’ while the real difference is between lovers and those who have lost that initial passion,” Pope Francis told the cardinals and senior officials of the Roman Curia when he met them for the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings this morning, Dec. 21. “That is the difference. Only those who love can journey forward.”

He recalled that a zealous priest once told him, “It is not easy to rekindle the embers under the ashes of the church.” Francis added, “Today we strive to kindle passion in those who have long since lost it.”

Since he delivered his first December address to the Roman Curia in 2013, Vatican officials have paid great attention to what Francis has to say in these pre-Christmas talks as he rarely pulls his punches. Francis opted for a more gentle though no less incisive talk this year, focused on three verbs that are central to Ignatian spirituality: listen, discern and journey.

He received the cardinals and senior officials of the Roman Curia in the ornate Hall of Benedictions of the apostolic palace, which was decorated for the festive occasion with two magnificent Christmas trees. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 89, dean of the college of cardinals greeted the pope on behalf of all present, thanked him for his energetic leadership of the church and wished him good health.

Francis, who celebrated his 87th birthday on Dec. 17, began his 30-minute talk with a reflection on the “mystery of Christmas” at a time when there is so much suffering in the world. This mystery, he said, “fills our hearts with awe at an unexpected message: God has come, God is here in our midst, and his light has forever pierced the darkness of the world.”

“It is not easy to rekindle the embers under the ashes of the church,” Pope Francis said, “Today we strive to kindle passion in those who have long since lost it.”

He told them, “We need to hear and accept this message anew, especially in these days tragically marked by the violence of war, by the momentous risks posed by climate change, and by poverty, suffering, hunger and all the grave problems of the present time.” He said, “It is comforting to discover that even in those painful situations, and all the other problems of our frail human family, God makes himself present in this crib, the manger, where today he chooses to be born and to bring the Father’s love to all. This he does in God’s own ‘style’: with closeness, compassion, tenderness.”

He told the cardinals and other senior Vatican officials, “We need to listen to the message of the God who comes to us; we need to discern the signs of his presence and to accept his Word by walking in his footsteps.” In words reminiscent of his message to the synod, Francis said the three verbs—listen, discern, journey—“can describe our faith journey and the service that we offer here in the Curia.” He went on to unpack the significance of each one by referring to Mary, John the Baptist and the Magi.

Listening like Mary

Mary “reminds us to listen,” the pope said. She “listened intently to the message of the angel and opened her heart to God’s plan.” Mary, he said, listened with the heart, which “involves an interior openness that can intuit the desires and needs of others, a relationship that urges us to abandon the patterns and prejudices that at times lead us to pigeonhole those around us.”

He told the Curia officials:

Even when speaking among ourselves, we risk being like hungry wolves: We can devour the other person’s words, without really listening to them, and then shape them to fit our own ideas and judgments. Really listening to another person, however, requires interior quiet and making room for silence between what we hear and what we say. First, we listen, then, in silence, we appropriate what we have heard, reflect on it, interpret it, and only then are we ready to offer a response. Prayer teaches us how to do this, for it expands the heart, overturns our egocentrism, shows us how to listen to others and awakens in us the quiet of contemplation.

“Even in our work in the Curia, we need to implore God’s grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence,” the pope said.

Francis told his “brothers and sisters” in the Curia: “We need to learn the art of listening. Even more important than our daily tasks and responsibilities, or even the positions we hold, is our need to appreciate the value of relationships, to keep them simple and straightforward, marked by an evangelical spirit, above all by our ability to listen to one another. With the heart and on our knees. Let us increasingly listen to each other, free of prejudices, with openness and sincerity.”

Discerning like John the Baptist

“Listening to one another helps us to adopt discernment as a method for our activity,” Francis said. He cited the example of John the Baptist who experienced “a dramatic crisis of faith” when Jesus arrived because he had been proclaiming “the imminent coming of the Lord as that of a mighty God, who would at last judge sinners.” But his image of the Messiah “shatters before Jesus’ gestures, words and ‘style,’ before the compassion and mercy he shows toward all.” He recalled that when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Mt 11:2-3).

Francis continued, “In a word, Jesus was not what people had expected, and even John the Baptist had to be converted to the newness of the Kingdom. He had to have the humility and courage needed to discern.”

“Even in our work in the Curia, we need to implore God’s grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence,” the pope said.

Francis told Vatican officials, “As an art of the spiritual life, [discernment] can strip us of the illusion of omniscience, from the danger of thinking that it is enough simply to apply rules, from the temptation to carry on, even in the life of the Curia, by simply repeating what we have always done. And in this way failing to realize that the mystery of God is always beyond us and that the lives of people and the world around us are, and will always remain, superior to ideas and theories.”

“Discernment,” he concluded, “ought to help us, even in the work of the Curia, to be docile to the Holy Spirit, to choose procedures and make decisions based not on worldly criteria, or simply by applying rules, but in accordance with the Gospel.”

Journeying like the Magi

Finally, the pope focused on the verb “journey” and cited the example of the Magi “who remind us of the importance of journeying.” He reminded them that “whenever God calls us, he sends us on a journey, as he did with Abraham, with Moses, with the prophets and with all the Lord’s disciples. He sends us on a journey, draws us out of our comfort zones, our complacency about what we have already done, and in this way, he sets us free.”

Francis told these Vatican officials:

In our service here in the Curia, too, it is important to keep journeying forward, to keep searching and growing in our understanding of the truth, overcoming the temptation to stand still and never leave the ‘labyrinth’ of our fears. Fear, rigidity and monotony make for an immobility that has the apparent advantage of not creating problems—‘stay put, don’t move’—but lead us to wander aimlessly within our labyrinths, to the detriment of the service we are called to offer the church and the whole world.

“Let us remain vigilant against rigid ideological positions that often, under the guise of good intentions, separate us from reality and prevent us from moving forward,” Francis said.

“Let us not forget that the journey of the Magi, and every journey in the Bible, always begins ‘from above,’ with a call of the Lord, with a sign from heaven or because God himself becomes a guide to illumine the path of his children.” So, he said, “whenever the service we offer risks becoming dull, enclosed in the ‘labyrinth’ of rigidity or mediocrity, whenever we find ourselves entangled in the web of bureaucracy and content ‘just to get by,’ let us always remember to look up, to start afresh from God, to be enlightened by his word and to find the courage needed to start anew.”

Francis concluded by thanking the cardinals and senior curial officials for their “work and dedication” so often done in silence. “Never lose our sense of humor,” he urged them. He ended with a request: “Please say a prayer for me before the manger.”

The cardinals and curial officials applauded when Francis finished speaking. He greeted each of them individually with a smile, and often with a joke, and gave each of them three books: his Christmas homilies, his 10 talks to the Roman Curia and Santi, non mondani (“Saints, not worldly people”), a short book that he also gave to synod participants in October.

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