The Pope’s end of year speech to the Roman Curia has become something of an event, thanks to two things.
First of all, this is the Pope who is supposedly reforming the Curia,
and that has aroused interest.
Secondly, this is the Pope who made that
speech back in 2014 which lambasted his audience for their fifteen spiritual ills including
“spiritual Alzheimer’s”. So when the Pope gets up to speak on what had
once been a rather dull routine occasion, people now tend to tune in
rather than out.
Then there is a matter of the presents.
In the old days each member
of the Curia got a bottle of prosecco and a panettone from the Holy
The Pope has cut out such fripperies. On one occasion each was
given a CD of the Pope’s speeches.
This year it was a book, recommended
by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who, funnily enough, is one of the Four
Cardinals who sent the Pope the famous dubia which remain still
The book is entitled “Measures to treat diseases of the
soul” (Industriae ad curandos animae morbos), by the Italian Jesuit Fr Claudio Acquaviva. No doubt it will make cheery Christmas reading.
But to the speech. This was, to put it mildly, cryptic, at least to English ears.
“The 12 principles for reform, translated by Vatican Radio, are:
individual responsibility (personal conversion), pastoral concern
(pastoral conversion), missionary spirit (Christocentrism), clear
organisation, improved functioning, modernisation (updating), sobriety,
subsidiarity, synodality, Catholicity, professionalism, gradualism
None of us are against things like sobriety (well, within reason),
but what does this mean in practice? It is all rather reminiscent of
Theresa May saying “Brexit means Brexit”; it may well do, but it doesn’t
answer the question “What exactly is it that you are planning to do?”
Nearly four years into the reign of Pope Francis, we still do not really
have a clear picture of what his reformed Roman Curia might look like.
Which leads one to ask: does he know himself? And if so, why doesn’t he
Ideas about reform have been floated in the past.The idea of merging
various dicasteries has been suggested, and this has happened, in that
we now have two new super-dicasteries, one dealing with the Family, the
Laity and Life, the other with Integral Human Flourishing; but at the
same time new departments have appeared, so the Roman Curia does not
seem to be slimming down.
More radical proposals – such as sending some
of the dicasteries out of Rome, employing more lay people in responsible
positions, or a change in the way personnel are hired and fired –
remain just that, proposals.
Some of these proposals have merit. For example, it might be a good
thing to relocate Propaganda Fidei, the agency which deals with the
Church’s missionary work, to somewhere like Nairobi. It would surely
make sense for the Curia to recruit its new members via a competitive
examination, as is the custom with most civil services, as opposed to
the time-honoured way of “raccommandazione”.
It would be good too if
offices didn’t shut for lunch, and if they used email, as opposed to
fax, which was the case when I lived in Rome, over a decade ago now. But
whatever the Pope’s speech was about, it didn’t seem to touch on these
sorts of practical concerns.
The Pope, as we all know, is a Jesuit. Jesuit superiors, drawing on
the heritage of St Ignatius of Loyola, are given to haranguing their
inferiors every now and then with what are called “exhortations”.
is common in other religious orders, and I have some experience of
These harangues are not meant to be congratulatory, but rather
meant to instil humility and a sense that the members of the order must
try harder, much harder.
They never ever carry any admission that the
superiors themselves are capable of making mistakes. (I may be doing him
an injustice, but such admissions do not seem to be part of the Loyola vision;
hence his talk of the subject being like a stick in an old man’s hand,
and the voice of the superior being the voice of God.) This may well
have worked once, but whether it is good for the present age, let the
The Pope’s admonition that those who oppose reform may well be doing
the Devil’s work needs to be seen in this context. Actually, those who
oppose reforms may well think “not these reforms”: they may
oppose them as counter-productive or misguided, rather than opposing
reform per se.
And yet, how can anyone oppose the Pope’s reforms, when
none of us know what these reforms really are?