Mandated by the cardinals in the pre-conclave meetings to reform the Roman Curia, Pope Francis is taking his task very seriously and moving in a more radical direction than anyone had expected. His aim is not simply structural reform of the Vatican offices, though that is part of it; his primary goal is the spiritual reform of all those working in the offices of the Holy See, a reform of attitudes and hearts.
“The spiritual reform [of the Roman Curia] is my great concern right now, to change people’s hearts,” Francis said in an interview with La Nación on Dec. 7. He revealed then that he was preparing two Christmas addresses: one for the prelates of the Roman Curia, the second for the other Vatican staff members. After that, he said, there would be “spiritual exercises for prefects and secretaries...six days locked in, praying. Just as we did last year, we’ll do it again the first week of Lent.”
As is well known, his Christmas address to the Vatican cardinals, archbishops, bishops and monsignors was not exactly the kind of pre-Christmas talk they had been accustomed to under recent pontiffs. Francis’ talk went to the heart of things; it offered a profound 15 point examination of conscience. He identified 15 “illnesses” that Vatican prelates may have contracted or succumbed to in their service of the Church of Rome. He asked each of them to examine their consciences against his checklist. It had a big impact, and some did not like it one bit. But it showed that “Francis really knows and understands well the real situation in the Vatican,” one Vatican prelate told me recently. Furthermore, he said, the checklist has relevance far beyond the Roman Curia.
After presenting Vatican prelates with this examination of conscience in early December, Pope Francis is now taking them “for spiritual exercises” outside Rome from Feb. 22 to 27.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope in the history of the church, came to the See of Peter with a lifetime of experience as a spiritual director and retreat-giver. Though widely recognized as a man of government, he is first and foremost a spiritual leader. He has learned from Jesus in the Gospel the importance and value of withdrawing from the crowd to a quiet place where one can reflect and pray.
Before Francis became pope, the annual Lenten retreat was always held inside the Vatican; prelates would turn up for common prayer and for the morning and afternoon talks given by the retreat director in the Redemptoris Mater chapel of the Apostolic Palace. But not all prelates abandoned their work schedules in those days; some choose to work at home during the retreat week. Francis has changed that.
Last year he decided that the Lenten retreat for the pope and Roman Curia should be held outside Rome, at a center run by the Pauline religious family called the “Casa Divin Maestro,” near the town of Ariccia in the Alban Hills, 18 miles from the Vatican. Overriding security concerns, he traveled there by bus, accompanied by 82 members of the Roman Curia. He is likely to do that this year too.
It should be noted, however, that Francis is aiming at a spiritual reform not only in the Vatican; he is seeking to promote it also in dioceses, parishes, communities and, of course, in individual believers throughout the Catholic world. His message for Lent, issued on Jan. 27, is a step in this direction. In it he addresses what he sees as one of the great challenges in our world today: “the globalization of indifference.”
He first used this striking expression on July 8, 2013, when on his first journey outside Rome, he traveled to the island of Lampedusa, off the southern coast of Italy, to weep for the tens of thousands of migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in recent years. During his homily at Mass on the island, he denounced what he called “the globalization of indifference,” which he said had deprived us of the ability to weep.
Since then he has used the expression on a wide variety of occasions, and this year he has developed his Lenten Message around that same theme. In it, he describes the “globalization of indifference” as “indifference to our neighbor and to God” and says it is “a real temptation for us Christians.” His message explains how we can combat it and “become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!”