Pope Francis continues to shock and astound. The first Latin American pontiff, who has shaken up the Vatican and the worldwide Catholic congregation with the refreshingly casual, forthright approach he has brought to his centuries-old office, made headlines anew this week with a broadside that must have left many in his intended audience squirming in their chasubles.
The recipients of his strong words were not the usual bête noires of the Church he leads—the gays, divorcees, practitioners of contraception, peoples of other faiths and moral relativists of the world—but men closer to his backyard. His colleagues, in fact, in the Vatican, the august cardinals who run the Roman Curia, the governing body of the Catholic Church. To them, Pope Francis spoke not in the pious felicitations that had heretofore characterized the traditional pre-Christmas meeting between the Vatican bureaucrats and the Pope, but in words that clearly intended to cut through the banalities to get to the point.
In a stinging rundown of “15 diseases” that he said were eating away at the top hierarchy of the Church, the outspoken Pope outdid himself with a speech that brimmed with strikingly vivid, unapologetically straightforward language. The Curia—long the subject of scrutiny for its widely reported penchant for intrigue, infighting and disreputable activities, from the careerism of its officials to the irregularities attending its finances—was in danger of bringing the Church down not only with its internal rot, but also by its inability to recognize its errors, he warned. “A Curia that does not practice self-criticism, does not keep up to date, does not try to better itself, is an infirm body.”
Too often, he said, the powerful men at the top of the Church have become so used to their lofty, influential positions that they now inhabit “a parallel world, where they disregard all that they sternly teach to others, and they start living a life that is secret and often dissolute.” That “pathology of power,” which derives “from a narcissism that views one’s own image passionately and not that of God impressed on others, especially the weak and the needy,” often leads to so-called servants of God behaving as if they are “immortal or essential.” Governed now by “worldly profit and exhibitionism,” by “rivalry and vainglory,” they have lost “their memory of their personal encounter with the Lord…” and “depend on their passions, whims and obsessions” while living “in a state of absolute dependence on their, often imagined, views.”
Fighting words. But he wasn’t through yet.
He denounced the “existential schizophrenia” afflicting many of his colleagues—“the disease of those who live a double life, a result of the hypocrisy typical of mediocre people and of advancing spiritual emptiness.” Settling for bureaucratic advancement instead of genuine pastoral work has made many of his co-churchmen “lose touch with reality, with concrete people.” That hollow, close-minded existence spawns, in turn, the evils of “chatter and gossip,” with the people who practice them in hallowed Vatican corridors nothing less than “cold-blooded assassins” and “cowards who don’t have the courage to speak directly so they talk behind people’s backs.”
And from a Pope who had immediately endeared himself to the world with his disarming smile and common touch came the admonition for his colleagues to lighten up, to make their evangelizing work a joyous experience for the faithful, rather than a cold, censorious one. “They think that to be serious you need to paint your expression with severity, and treat others—especially those believed to be inferior—with rigidity, toughness and arrogance,” he said. “But this theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are just symptoms of fear and insecurity.”
In case that still wasn’t clear enough, he added for good measure that a good pastor must be “polite, serene, enthusiastic and joyful,” with a healthy sense of “humor and self-irony.”
Think about it—when was the last time you heard the leader of an institution steeped in often stultifying tradition and insularity exhort his Church to savor the liberating effects of humor, good cheer, irony and self-reflection—the very same qualities, come to think about it, that he has employed in his revolutionary campaign to transform and renew it?
We can’t wait to hear what the good Pope has to say to the Filipino bishops once he’s in town, just three weeks from now. We’re betting some of them are having anxious nights, with Francis’ words ringing true, perhaps even more so, here.
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